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Justice Department Cites 'Grave Concerns' About Baltimore Police Reform

The Justice Department seems to be having second thoughts about an agreement it made with Baltimore to overhaul its troubled police force.
Image: Baltimore police walk near a mural depicting Freddie Gray
Baltimore police walk near a mural depicting Freddie Gray after prosecutors dropped remaining charges against the three Baltimore police officers who were still awaiting trial in Gray's death, in Baltimore, on July 27, 2016. The decision by prosecutors comes after a judge had already acquitted three of the six officers charged in the case.Steve Ruark / AP, file

Signs of a Justice Department turnaround on a sweeping set of police reforms in Baltimore became more apparent on Thursday, with a federal lawyer telling a judge the Trump administration now has "grave concerns" about a consent decree negotiated under former President Obama.

The lawyer, John Gore, told a judge that Attorney General Jeff Sessions was concerned whether the agreement, already signed by the city and federal governments, "will achieve the goals of public safety and law enforcement while at the same time protecting civil rights."

In response, the city and a stream of Baltimore residents pleaded with the judge to approve the agreement, which would make the reforms enforceable by a federal court.

"Please move forward on this," resident Prudence Johnson said. "We are tired of burying our children."

Related: Cities Don’t Want Justice Department to Back Off Police Reforms

City solicitor David Ralph said the settlement was designed to fight crime and protect civil rights. Approving it, he said, would show the public that the government is committed to overhauling the troubled force.

Thursday's hearing, aimed at allowing the public to share their opinions on the settlement, came a day after U.S. District Court Judge James Bredar denied the Justice Department's last-minute request to delay the process in order to study the agreement more closely.

Sessions, a skeptic of consent decrees, has sought to prioritize a stronger enforcement strategy for American police, saying a backlash against law enforcement was hurting the fight against crime.

But reformers, including Baltimore's police commissioner, say that the changes will improve safety by rebuilding trust between cops and the public.

Baltimore's consent decree is a result of a Justice Department investigation prompted by the rioting that erupted following the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. Investigators from the Division of Civil Rights found a pattern of unconstitutional stops, searches and arrests of black residents, and the use of unnecessary force against them.

Related: Justice Department Finds Baltimore Police Practices Are Racially Biased

The investigators traced the problems to a 1990s-era crime-fighting strategy aimed at the drug trade. They found hundreds of thousands of pedestrian stops for minor offenses with minimal or no suspicion of lawbreaking, all concentrated in black neighborhoods. Less than four percent of the sidewalk stops resulted in arrests.

Black drivers suffered similarly: they were disproportionately pulled over for traffic stops and searched for drugs, even though officers found illegal substances more often in searchers involving white drivers.

The Civil Rights Division, which has negotiated similar arrangements in two-dozen other cities, threatened to sue the city unless it agreed to reform itself. Baltimore agreed, signing a consent decree that will put the city under a court-appointed monitor. Such deals typically last years, and cost many millions of dollars.