Justice Department Will Investigate Baltimore Police Practices
By MATT APUZZO and SHERYL GAY STOLBERG
New York Times
MAY 7, 2015
WASHINGTON — The Justice Department will investigate whether the Baltimore Police Department engaged in a pattern of unconstitutional policing, law enforcement officials said on Thursday, a day after the mayor asked for an inquiry.
The request by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake came days after the state’s attorney for Baltimore filed criminal charges against six officers involved in the arrest of Freddie Gray, who died April 19 after being injured while in police custody. His death set off large demonstrations, arson and looting.
At a policing conference earlier on Thursday, the Baltimore police commissioner, Anthony W. Batts, said he did not object to an outside investigation, adding that he was committed to reforming the Police Department. He said he recognized that Baltimore residents did not trust the city to make changes voluntarily.
“I am willing to do anything it takes to win that trust back,” he said. “If it’s D.O.J., whatever it takes.”
Protesters said the unrest set off by Mr. Gray’s death was the culmination of years of police mistreatment. The turmoil has dominated Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch’s first days in office.
“The situation in Baltimore involves a core responsibility of the Department of Justice — not only to combat illegal conduct when it occurs, but to help prevent the circumstances that give rise to it in the first place,” Ms. Lynch said on Capitol Hill on Thursday.
There was no immediate reaction from Ms. Rawlings-Blake. Earlier Thursday, the mayor convened business, religious and philanthropic leaders at the intersection of West North and Pennsylvania Avenues, near a CVS store that was looted and burned in last week’s riots, to announce a public-private partnership to improve areas devastated by the unrest. She called it a “once-in-a-generation effort to tackle inequality.”
Ms. Lynch, who took office a week after Mr. Gray died, was in Baltimore this week to meet with community, religious and political leaders about whether to conduct a “pattern or practice” review, which would look into whether police officers used excessive force, carried out street stops based on race or arrested people without probable cause.
Representative Elijah E. Cummings, a Democrat who represents Baltimore — and who lives four blocks from the CVS that was burned — said there was uniform agreement.
“She asked them, ‘How many of you all think we should have a patterns and practices review investigation?’ ” Mr. Cummings recalled in an interview Thursday. “If I remember correctly, all of them raised their hands; there were about 40 of them. And I raised mine too.”
Mr. Cummings said that even before that meeting, he and other members of Congress from Maryland had a conference call with Ms. Lynch shortly after she took office in which he asked for such a review.
The decision by the Justice Department was welcome news to civil rights advocates who had been pressing for a review for a long time. “A range of people and organizations have been asking for this for years,” said Sonia Kumar, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, “but really, I think those calls became louder and more forceful in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray.”
Civil rights investigations often end with court settlements and independent oversight of police departments. They can be powerful agents of change, but they are not immediate, and the Baltimore investigation could take a year or more. A similar investigation into the Police Department in Ferguson, Mo., took seven months, an extraordinarily fast timeline for such cases.
Mr. Batts and the mayor had already asked the Justice Department’s community-policing experts to conduct a voluntary review of the department. The preliminary results of that review will most likely be released in the coming weeks and are expected to recommend changes to training and use-of-force policies. Those recommendations would not be binding, but Mr. Batts said he planned to work with the community-policing experts to make changes to the department regardless of what civil rights investigators did.
A version of this article appears in print on May 8, 2015, on page A14 of the New York edition with the headline: Justice Dept. Will Examine Baltimore’s Police Patterns. Order Reprints| Today's Paper|Subscribe