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In Baltimore's call for federal police probe, a new search for answers (+video)

While some Justice Department investigations are adversarial, a new model of collaborative reform is surprising police in some cities, as they find themselves included as part of the solution. 

Searching for a "framework ... [to] heal," Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake put in a 911 call to the US Department of Justice to ask for a civil rights investigation into the Baltimore Police Department’s beat cop tactics.

Her call, not even a week after a local prosecutor charged six police officers with crimes including murder for their alleged role in the death of Freddie Gray, is part of a broader trend of "collaborative reform" between Washington and local jurisdictions.

What's striking about such investigations is that they don't just slam the police, but also aim to help officers stay safe and protect citizens, as well as show that they are part of the solution. 

In fact, following a Baltimore Sun series on police abuses in the city last year, Police Commissioner Anthony Batts approached the Justice Department to conduct a collaborative review, which had been under way the day Mr. Gray died while in police custody.

Some DOJ investigations are adversarial, as police bristle at court orders and federal monitors. But a federal investigation into whether Baltimore cops routinely violate people’s civil rights is likely to mirror similar probes in Las Vegas and Philadelphia, where police chiefs have been able to use federal findings to gain leverage with elected officials and also use facts to rebut claims by police officers that they’re doing nothing wrong, says Sam Walker, a criminologist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

To be sure, Mr. Walker says, it’s “too early to tell” whether such interventions can bring the kind of fundamental reforms that Mayor Rawlings-Blake is hoping to find in the aftermath of Gray’s death and injuries to nearly 100 cops during violent riots.

But there is growing evidence that such collaborative efforts can help communities grapple with deep tensions between police and neighborhoods and build trust around common goals like respect, dignity, and sanctity of life.

After Las Vegas police shot a record 25 people in 2010, the city began its own reforms and asked the Department of Justice for help a year later. In 2011, the DOJ began the new collaboration program, delving deep into practices, training procedures, and policies to root out where officers were going wrong and where policies failed the people.

As of 2012, the Las Vegas department had completed dozens of difficult reforms, including rewriting its use-of-deadly-force policy to include a reference to officers acknowledging the “sanctity of human life” as they make critical split-second decisions. The department added so-called reality-based training to give officers more options than quick deployment of deadly force as they interacted with drugged, drunk, or mentally ill citizens. Since then, the number of officer-involved shootings in Las Vegas has stayed below historical averages, year to year.

In March, the Justice Department reported back on practices of the Philadelphia Police Department, which had seen a stretch of years in which police killed a person nearly every week, many of them unarmed. The DOJ team, which was made up of policing experts and not prosecutors, released a string of findings that pointed to problems in both policy and training.

Surprisingly to some, many complaints came from officers themselves. Among the findings were complaints from officers that they were not properly trained to deal with violent suspects. The training needed to be less staged and more reality-based, officers said, including allowing trainees to grapple with each other to learn tactics.

“Interview participants generally thought that the defensive tactics training offered at the academy focused too much on legal liability and not enough on teaching practical and realistic methods for surviving a physical encounter,” the DOJ report stated. “They did not believe that [training] sufficiently prepared them for a physical encounter.”

Aside from giving leaders hard facts to work with, such reports can also help defend police officers. Even though many police shootings have a racial backdrop, the Justice Department found that Philadelphia police did not have a problem with racial stereotyping. In fact, unarmed white males were more likely to be shot and killed by Philadelphia police than unarmed black males.

“I want to express regrets for all who have been shot in Philadelphia, civilians or police officers.... Every life is precious in this city and this country, so we need to maintain this level of focus," Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said in March. "We're one big city. Everyone wants to be safe. Citizens want to be safe. Police officers want to be safe."

The Justice Department has conducted 19 civil rights investigations since 2000, stepping up the efforts in the Obama era, with five police departments coming under federal monitoring in 2012 alone. Some of those investigations have been scathing, including a report in March that documented abuses by the Ferguson (Mo.) Police Department that helped fuel protests in the wake of Michael’s Brown death last August, at the hands of a police officer.

So far, Attorney General Loretta Lynch has not replied to the Baltimore mayor’s request for a separate civil rights abuse probe.

But the request makes clear that the city’s police probably have problems that go beyond the treatment of Gray.

Since 2011, the city has settled more than 100 lawsuits equaling nearly $6 million in cases where people were bruised and battered by officers, only to have trumped-up charges later dropped by a judge.

True, institutional change can be difficult. After the Baltimore Police Department promised the courts in 2010 it would curb the large percentage of false arrests in the city by offering better training, the department dragged its feet, the American Civil Liberties Union has alleged. The issue has reared up again in the Gray case, since prosecutor Marilyn Mosby has charged that officers falsely arrested Gray for carrying a legal knife.

But so far in Philadelphia and Las Vegas, one key to success has been the efforts to engage police officers in the process by showing them that they are part of the solution, and that the collaboration isn't about outsiders second-guessing their actions. In Philadelphia, Commissioner Charles Ramsey sent every officer a link to the Las Vegas report, so they could see for themselves that it was more an attempt to help officers stay safe and protect citizens than blaming them for their actions.

"Cops are always leery of something," Mr. Ramsey told the Baltimore Sun. "We did as much as we could to alleviate any concerns and fears."

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