Com­mis­sion seeks po­lice over­sight

Civil rights group wants Jus­tice Depart­ment to back con­sent de­crees

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE -

The U.S. Com­mis­sion on Civil Rights is call­ing on the Jus­tice Depart­ment to “re­turn to vig­or­ous en­force­ment of con­sti­tu­tional polic­ing” through the use of bind­ing po­lice re­form agree­ments like the one in place in Bal­ti­more.

The rec­om­men­da­tion is one of sev­eral found in a 221-page re­port on polic­ing that the in­de­pen­dent watch­dog group re­leased Thurs­day.

It comes af­ter out­go­ing At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions is­sued a terse me­moran­dum dra­mat­i­cally re­duc­ing the abil­ity of fed­eral law en­force­ment of­fi­cials to use such courten­forced con­sent de­crees to chal­lenge un­con­sti­tu­tional polic­ing prac­tices in lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties na­tion­wide.

The com­mis­sion re­port, ti­tled “Po­lice Use of Force: An Ex­am­i­na­tion of Mod­ern Polic­ing Prac­tices,” takes a deep look at po­lice shoot­ings and other uses of force — in­clud­ing against young black men — that have led to protests and un­rest in Bal­ti­more, Fer­gu­son, Mo., and other cities across the coun­try in re­cent years.

It of­fers rec­om­men­da­tions for how the fed­eral govern­ment could ad­dress such in­ci­dents and pre­vent them from hap­pen­ing in the fu­ture. Among them: sign­ing con­sent de­crees, in­creas­ing train­ing for of­fi­cers, in­creas­ing grant fund­ing for re­form ef­forts, and im­prov­ing fed­eral data col­lec­tion on such in­ci­dents by re­quir­ing lo­cal ju­ris­dic­tions to sub­mit data be­fore they can re­ceive fed­eral fund­ing.

In a let­ter ad­dressed to Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, com­mis­sion chair Cather­ine E. Lha­mon wrote that a ma­jor­ity of the eight-mem­ber panel agreed that such re­forms will help “stem the tide of per­ceived con­flict be­tween po­lice of­fi­cers and their com­mu­ni­ties” and “recom­mit this na­tion to the prin­ci­ples of fair­ness and equal treat­ment, in­clud­ing at the hands of po­lice, that are core to democ­racy.”

The White House re­ferred all ques­tions about the re­port to the Jus­tice Depart­ment, which de­clined to com­ment.

In an in­ter­view, Lha­mon said the re­port was the re­sult of four years of re­search and anal­y­sis by the com­mis­sion, which unan­i­mously voted in De­cem­ber 2014 to in­ves­ti­gate po­lice uses of force.

She said its re­lease so soon af­ter Ses­sions’ memo was “co­in­ci­den­tal,” but also “timely.” She said she hopes it pro­vides a com­pelling coun­ter­point to the memo, which she called “in­cred­i­bly harm­ful.”

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has cas­ti­gated con­sent de­crees as ex­pen­sive and un­demo­cratic over­reaches that re­move the power to make polic­ing and bud­getary de­ci­sions from lo­cally-elected of­fi­cials.

Ses­sions tried to stop the Bal­ti­more con­sent de­cree, which was agreed to in the wan­ing days of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, by sug­gest­ing it would make Bal­ti­more less safe. How­ever, U.S. Dis­trict Judge James K. Bredar, over­see­ing the con­sent de­cree case in fed­eral court, dis­agreed and en­tered the agree­ment any­way in April 2017.

The deal re­quires the Bal­ti­more Po­lice Depart­ment to make an ar­ray of re­forms touch­ing on ev­ery­thing from the use of force to of­fi­cer train­ing and su­per­vi­sion, in­ter­ac­tions with mi­nor­ity com­mu­ni­ties and protesters, po­lice pro­to­cols for pa­trols and stops, searches and seizures, po­lice depart­ment staffing and the use of tech­nol­ogy in the crime fight.

The deal was the re­sult of a Jus­tice Depart­ment in­ves­ti­ga­tion launched in Bal­ti­more af­ter Fred­die Gray’s death from in­juries suf­fered in po­lice cus­tody. Gray’s death led to un­rest and ri­ot­ing in April 2015.

The Jus­tice Depart­ment in­ves­ti­ga­tion found wide­spread dis­crim­i­na­tory and un­con­sti­tu­tional polic­ing in the depart­ment go­ing back decades, and it then ne­go­ti­ated with the city to pro­duce the lengthy list of re­form man­dates in the con­sent de­cree. The work is on­go­ing.

Lha­mon, a Mary­land res­i­dent and Demo­crat ap­pointed to the com­mis­sion by Pres­i­dent Barack Obama in 2016, said con­sent de­crees have been shown to im­prove po­lice de­part­ments and their con­sti­tu­tional treat­ment of cit­i­zens, and re­duce use of force. And she crit­i­cized what she said was the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s “un­prece­dented” and “deeply dan­ger­ous” ab­di­ca­tion of its duty to over­see lo­cal po­lice de­part­ments, in­clud­ing through the use of such agree­ments.

Lha­mon said Ses­sions’ memo, mak­ing it far less likely that con­sent de­crees will be struck with prob­lem­atic po­lice de­part­ments mov­ing for­ward, ig­nores pleas for re­forms from cit­i­zens and po­lice of­fi­cers across the coun­try.

“The sad re­al­ity is that these … are daily con­cerns for too many Amer­i­cans and too many po­lice of­fi­cers across the coun­try, who ev­ery day are try­ing to find bet­ter ways to in­ter­act,” she said.

Lha­mon said she and four other Democrat­ap­pointed mem­bers of the com­mis­sion voted to ap­prove the lan­guage of the re­port and all of its find­ings and rec­om­men­da­tions, while two Repub­li­can-ap­pointed com­mis­sion­ers voted against the re­port and its find­ings.

Peter Kir­sanow, ap­pointed by re­tired House Speaker John Boehner, in his dis­sent, chal­lenged the idea that Jus­tice Depart­ment in­volve­ment in po­lice af­fairs has been ben­e­fi­cial.

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