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Baltimore Reaches Agreement With US to Reform Policing

Six police officers were charged but none were convicted in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray

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    Demonstrators protest the death of Freddie Gray outside Baltimore City Hall on Monday, April 20, 2015.

    The Baltimore police department committed to a sweeping overhaul of its practices Thursday under a court-enforceable agreement with the federal government.

    The Justice Department agreement , which was approved by the city government and will be submitted to a judge, mandates changes in the most fundamental aspects of police work. The agreement, known as a consent decree, is the culmination of months of negotiations with the federal government and is meant to correct constitutional violations identified in a scathing report released last year.

    The filing of the agreement, in the waning days of U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch's tenure, is meant as a capstone for an administration that has made civil rights enforcement a priority and that has pursued similar consent decrees with other large American police forces.

    "Through this agreement, we are moving forward together to work to heal the tension in the relationship between the Baltimore Police Department and the community that it serves," Lynch said at a news conference.

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    The agreement is intended to remain in place long after Lynch leaves office, though civil liberties advocates are concerned that U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican who's been nominated to replace her, may not enforce consent decrees with the same vigor. On Thursday, she addressed those concerns.

    "It is binding," she said, "and it will live on past this administration."

    A hearing will allow for public comment on the agreement before it's approved by a federal judge.

    The Justice Department began investigating the Baltimore force following the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray, a young black man who was fatally injured while in the custody of officers. Its report last August found that officers were routinely stopping large numbers of people in poor, black neighborhoods for dubious reasons, and unlawfully arresting residents merely for speaking out in ways police deemed disrespectful.

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    The consent decree discourages the arrests of citizens for quality-of-life offenses, requiring a supervisor to sign off on any request to take someone into custody for a minor infraction, and also mandates basic training for making stops and searches. In addition, it commands officers to use de-escalation techniques, thoroughly investigate sexual assault claims and send specially trained units to distress calls involving people with mental illness.

    The agreement also lays out policies for transporting prisoners, a likely acknowledgment of the death of Gray, who suffered a grievous spinal cord injury in the back of a police van. The consent decree requires officers to ensure that prisoners are protected with seat belts and to check on them periodically.

    Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said his officers will benefit from the reforms.

    "I have no doubt that when we eventually emerge from this consent decree, we will be better crime fighters and have a greater, more respectful and trustful relationship with our community," he said.

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    Mayor Catherine Pugh said the city's police union, which has been historically resistant to reforms, was involved, but had not "been at the table" since October. A message posted on the union's Twitter account on Thursday said its representatives were not asked to participate.

    Hassan Murphy, one of the attorneys representing Gray's mother and stepfather, said they are "gratified to know at least something major would come from their child's death." 

    The Justice Department in the Obama administration has launched about two dozen wide-ranging investigations of police agencies, including Chicago, Cleveland and Ferguson, Missouri, and is enforcing consent decrees with many of them.

    At his confirmation hearing this week, Sessions expressed ambivalence about the enforcement of consent decrees. He said that while he believed individual officers needed to be held accountable for wrongdoing, he was concerned about maligning an entire police agency for what may be the bad actions of a small number of officers.

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    DeRay Mckesson, a well-known Black Lives Matter activist, said the Baltimore consent decree could stand as a model.

    "Even with a new administration, this can still serve as a bellwether or model for what deep structural change looks like moving forward," he said.