UPDATED: May 7, 2015 9:21 p.m.
BALTIMORE — U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski said Thursday that she and other members of Maryland’s congressional delegation support Baltimore’s mayor in asking for a broad federal investigation of whether city police engage in discriminatory patterns or practices — a request sparked by the death of Freddie Gray, a black man who suffered a fatal spinal injury in police custody last month.
The Democratic senator told U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch during a Senate subcommittee hearing that Lynch would get a letter later Thursday from the Maryland delegation supporting Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s request, made Wednesday.
“In many cities throughout the country, including my own city of Baltimore, the trust between community and police is broken. We must do all we can to restore that trust,” Mikulski said in a written statement.
Rawlings-Blake has won support from other public officials and praise from legal experts for requesting the investigation after previously saying she was determined to fix the Baltimore Police Department’s problems herself.
A key figure who didn’t immediately respond was Police Commissioner Anthony Batts, brought in from Oakland, California, by the mayor 2 1/2 years ago to reform the department.
Batts released a statement later on Thursday afternoon.
“There are tangible, empirical results that show we are moving the organization in a fundamentally new direction,” he says in the statement. “I welcome with open arms the Mayor’s request for a Department of Justice review. We have never shied away from scrutiny or assistance.”
Police Commissioner Anthony Batts issues a statement on the Mayor's request for a D.O.J. review of the BPD: tinyurl.com/nzzus3m—
Baltimore Police (@BaltimorePolice) May 07, 2015
The mayor’s request could put Batts’ leadership under a microscope.
Lynch said in written testimony prepared for the Senate hearing that her agency is considering the request and she intends to have a decision “in the coming days.”
The Washington Post reports Lynch has decided to launch a federal investigation into whether the Baltimore Police Department has engaged in a “pattern or practice” of excessive force.
She said the city has made significant strides in a voluntary, collaborative reform effort with the Justice Department that began last fall, but “I have not ruled out the possibility that more may need to be done.”
The mayor’s announcement Wednesday came a day after her closed-door meeting at City Hall with Lynch.
The broad investigation, if undertaken by the federal agency, could eventually force the city to make changes under the oversight of an outside monitor.
Rawlings-Blake said she would accept outside intervention to repair fractured relations between the police and the public in a city that was torn by riots over Gray’s death.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, Baltimore City Council President Jack Young and the president of the city’s police union were among the public officials saying they welcomed the development.
Criminologist Samuel Walker, a professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska-Omaha who has written extensively on civil-rights abuses by police, said a civil-rights investigation is warranted in Baltimore and he expects the Justice Department to launch one.
He said Rawlings-Blake “has to be given credit for having thought about the problem and evidently recognized that the problems are worse than she realized, and this is the proper solution.”
Baltimore suffered days of unrest after Gray died April 19. He had been in a weeklong coma after his arrest. Protesters threw bottles and bricks at police the night of his funeral on April 27, injuring nearly 100 officers. More than 200 people were arrested as cars and businesses burned.
Baltimore has been participating in a voluntary Justice Department review, requested by Rawlings-Blake and Batts last fall. It would enable police to implement reforms without a court order or independent monitor.
The Justice Department also is investigating whether Gray’s civil rights were violated, a much narrower review than what Rawlings-Blake sought Wednesday.
Six officers face state charges ranging from assault to second-degree murder in Gray’s death. At least two have filed motions challenging the prosecutor’s assertion that Gray was arrested illegally.
The investigation the mayor now wants is a wide-ranging probe, examining how police use force, and search and arrest suspects. A similar investigation followed the shooting of an unarmed, 18-year-old black man by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The department ultimately concluded that Ferguson’s police and courts engaged in patterns of racial profiling, bigotry and profit-driven law enforcement, and directed local authorities to make changes. Local authorities still insist they did nothing wrong.
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