Justice Department to probe allegations of police misconduct in Baltimore

Deputy Police Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez speaks during the press conference held on Friday regarding police conduct at Police Headquarters.The Baltimore Sun – by Mark Puente

The U.S. Department of Justice will conduct a civil rights investigation into allegations of brutality and misconduct by the Baltimore Police Department, Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts announced Friday.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Batts requested the probe after a six-month investigation by The Baltimore Sun found city residents have suffered battered faces and broken bones during arrests.

The city has paid $5.7 million in court judgments and settlements in 102 cases since 2011, and nearly all of the people who received payouts were cleared of criminal charges, according to the investigation published this week.  

“Over the last two years, we have not stopped working to reshape and reform the Baltimore Police Department,” Batts said in a statement designed to help restore the public’s trust with the agency.

“I didn’t break it, but I’m here to fix it. The vast majority of this department comes to work each and every day to help make Baltimore a safer city. We know that there is a few of us who are not in alignment with the philosophy that I have set forth for this police agency.”

Such broad inquiries by the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division examine whether officers have a history of discrimination or using force beyond standard guidelines. They typically lead to consent decrees and years of court monitoring. Twenty federal probes into police departments have started in the past six years, in cities such as Cleveland and New Orleans.

Baltimore’s mayor and commissioner said they started talking weeks ago with officials in other cities where similar investigations have occurred. City officials had been briefed on the results of The Sun’s findings months ago.

Rawlings-Blake said she has worked to make the Baltimore police force accountable and more transparent since her tenure on the City Council. She has repeatedly said she does not condone police brutality.

“I welcome any partners willing to work constructively in those efforts, including the Justice Department,” Rawlings-Blake said in a statement. “My administration is developing additional reforms to build on the progress we’ve seen since I became mayor.

“I didn’t create these problems, but as the mayor in charge today I take seriously my responsibility to try and fix them. I’ve never turned a blind eye where bold leadership was needed. I will continue the hard work necessary to reform a department that was broken for too long. As a city, we will make progress together.”

Earlier Friday, City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young said he also had asked the Justice Department to investigate, citing “disturbing reports of police misconduct.”

In a two-page letter sent to U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder on Wednesday, Young wrote that he is a “concerned citizen” and an elected official “who is charged with ensuring equal justice for all” Baltimore citizens.

“These disturbing reports of police misconduct serve to further damage the fragile relationship between the city’s police officers and citizens,” Young wrote, citing The Sun’s investigation.

Young also cited the deaths of Anthony Anderson and Tyrone West. Both men died in police custody during arrests, and prosecutors cleared officers of wrongdoing.

Robert F. Cherry, president of the city’s Fraternal Order of Police lodge, called on Rawlings-Blake and Batts to take responsibility and stop blaming previous mayors and police commissioners for current problems.

He said the union gave city leaders a blueprint for reform several years ago, including a proposal to raise hiring standards. He said Batts shouldn’t look for outsiders to help do the job that Rawlings-Blake hired him to do.

“If I was the police commissioner, I wouldn’t ask the DOJ to come in here,” he said. “The problems are not systemic across the entire agency.”

The Sun, which focused on settlements and court judgments over the past four years, highlighted lawsuits related to allegations of assault, false arrest and false imprisonment. The city paid settlements and court judgments in civil lawsuits against officers over that period; most often, the people arrested were African-Americans.

Rawlings-Blake and Batts played down The Sun investigation this week, noting that most of the incidents documented in the article occurred between 2007 and 2010, before Batts became commissioner. The payouts were made since 2011.

But more recent incidents have come to light. In the past month, the agency reacted swiftly when two separate videos surfaced showing officers hitting suspects. Batts condemned — and suspended — an officer who struck a man at a bus shelter this summer. Officers in the second video are being investigated.

On Friday, Batts said the agency must address lingering community suspicions.


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