Time to End Baltimore’s Policing Consent Decree

Time to end Baltimore’s policing consent decree
Baltimore Sun, March 15,2024

By George Liebmann

Cities with consent decrees like Baltimore’s are likely to have higher homicide rates because two of the principal effects of such decrees are to discourage police recruitment and prevent proactive policing. Competent police commissioners can reform police; insulated federal judges cannot.

There is reason to resent “stop and frisk” policing, being pulled over for “driving while Black,” and excesses of the drug war — long pre-trial detention and sentences. But nine years after the 2015 death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, which led to the eventual consent decree, it is time to take stock of where that consent decree has gotten us.
The hyping of Gray’s death by area media, including The Sun, contributed to the community disturbances that followed.

It was represented that police had no basis to stop Gray, known to police as a small-time drug dealer with a long record of arrests, though he had fled at their approach, which the Supreme Court has deemed a basis for a stop. It also was popularly represented that Gray received a “rough ride” from arresting officers, half of whom were Black. This version, uncorroborated by Gray’s fellow passenger, was never proven in any of four trials, two federal investigations by different administrations, and several administrative hearings.

The press also downplayed the disconcerting fact that this spontaneous “uprising” was accompanied by the looting of inner-city pharmacies.
The political fruits of these disturbances almost certainly included the election of Donald Trump. His narrow majorities in Northern states owed much to the reawakening of memories of 1968, when the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. sparked violence in dozens of cities across the country.

A second consequence was the consent decree, negotiated by the lame-duck administrations of President Barack Obama presidential and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

The Justice Department report on which the decree was based was unsigned. It collected anecdotes about practices that had been restricted by Baltimore’s prior two police commissioners. It so limited proactive policing that Baltimore’s homicide tally rose from 211 in 2014 to more than 300 in ensuing years, costing an additional thousand Black lives.
Baltimore’s homicide rate topped 50 per 100,000 residents every year since 2015.

On taking office in December 2020, Mayor Brandon Scott ceremoniously read aloud the names of Baltimore’s 348 homicide victims in the preceding year, the forgotten casualties of crime policies that both cost lives and damaged efforts to generate opportunities. Homicides hurt Baltimore’s efforts to attract new residents, employers and visitors.

I was one of the few to protest the entry of the consent decree. The 20-odd contenders for the estimated $1.5 million per year monitoring contract made no comment on the decree’s terms. Its rushed entry seven years ago appeared to be the product of collusion between lame-duck municipal and national administrations. The court declined to allow time for the new national administration to comment on its terms, notwithstanding the presence in it of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the former U.S. Attorney in Baltimore under both Democratic and Republican administrations.

James K. Bredar, the judge overseeing the consent decree, joins other city officials at quarterly intervals, expressing pleasure at the so-called “progress” the city has made. The decree was drafted in a way to make its removal difficult.

On Sept.13, 2021, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and former Deputy Attorney General Vanita Gupta, who negotiated the Baltimore decree, issued a memorandum declaring that future consent decrees should set a five-year time limit for achieving reforms, with a hearing held to demonstrate progress and make a case for termination or solidifying a “plan for getting over the finish line in short order.” No such termination hearing was held on the five-year anniversary of the Baltimore decree in early 2022, and the monitor’s filings indicate that several more years of activity is contemplated. The monitor’s budget for 2024 is $1.6 million, and many lawyers have an interest in seeing it continue.

Baltimore’s consent decree not only limits stop-and-frisk policing, which is used largely to keep weapons off the street, it also effectively suspends the operation of many provisions of the Maryland criminal code, including provisions relating to such matters as public defecation. It impairs pro-active policing, effectively preventing Baltimore from using the policing practices that had produced an 80% reduction in the homicide rate in New York City over two decades. It was effectively a gift to the drug gangs convulsing our city.

Section 63 of the decree states that “BPD will require that a permanent rank supervisor approve or disapprove the officer’s request to make an Arrest for Quality of Life Offenses.” These are defined as including “Loitering, Trespassing, Public Urination/Defecation, Disorderly Conduct, Failure to Obey, Disturbing the Peace, Hindering, Open Container, [and] Littering.”

Baltimore has a mayor, a state’s attorney and a police commissioner its residents can trust; they should not be straight-jacketed by the restrictions in the consent decree, which appear to have fostered police retirements and discouraged recruiting. The latest report to Judge Bredar on manpower indicates attrition of 231 police officers in 2023 and the hiring of only 110. A year earlier, 279 people left, while only 103 were hired.
It is past time for Judge Bredar, sua sponte, or federal or local officials to seek hearings upon and reconsideration of the decree. The dead memorialized by Mayor Scott deserve commemoration, and the living deserve protection.

George Liebmann (george.liebmann2@verizon.net) is president of the Library Company of the Baltimore Bar, and is the author of works on law and history, most recently “The Tafts” (Twelve Tables Press, 2023).

Posted in: Criminal Justice, Drugs, Judiciary and Legal Issues, State and Local Politics, Urban Affairs

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