On and on the report went, showing systemic, structural problems with the Baltimore Police Department, ones whose scope and temporal reach couldn’t possibly be the product of merely a few bad cops. Baltimore’s leadership, to its credit, was eager to reform, and welcomed a consent decree with the U.S. government. Reformers argue that when a force is as badly broken as Baltimore’s is, internal reform is insufficient. Indeed, the police commissioner at the time of Gray’s death had been hired as a reformer, but his progress was slow, and he was fired in the wake of the demonstrations.
That’s one thing that’s so peculiar about the Justice Department possibly seeking to withdraw: Under the consent decree, the U.S. government was striking a deal with the city of Baltimore, in which the city of Baltimore would make changes in order to prevent litigation. Yet now, the plaintiff, the Justice Department, is interested in walking away from the deal, while the defendant is insisting it go forward.
Mayor Catherine Pugh said she strongly opposed any delay to the consent decree. So did Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis.
“I’m disappointed that the Department of Justice thought it was necessary to seek a 90-day extension,” he said Tuesday. “We’re ready to go with the consent decree. I want to say to the community in particular that the police department is absolutely dedicated to the consent-decree process. There’s no backroom deals. There’s no sleight of hand.”
Not all departments have been as eager for federal involvement, but Justice reports have shown similarly systemic issues in Cleveland, Chicago, and Ferguson, Missouri.
And despite Sessions’s claim to speak for police who are struggling with criticism, many chiefs have welcomed federal involvement as an essential aid. In addition to Davis’s criticism, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Commissioner Eddie Johnson also issued a statement saying they would move forward with reform, alone or with the Justice Department: “We can only speak for our intentions, we can’t speak for the federal government’s.” In Cincinnati, which reformed its police department after a consent decree, federal involvement has been widely hailed as contributing to a vast improvement in the city’s policing and relationship with the community.
Whether the Department of Justice could actually withdraw is an open question. New administrations often temporarily freeze the policies of their predecessors, and sometimes reverse them, but a consent decree is different because it’s a legally binding agreement. Experts said they were unsure whether a judge would be willing to allow the federal government to undo that.
“People bargained and struck a deal, or the court imposed one, more or less,” said Carl Tobias, Williams professor of law at the University of Richmond. “The government usually enters into it because it thinks it might do worse if it continued to litigate. It’s like a settlement.”