USA Justice First Look

Two years after death of Freddie Gray, Baltimore set to announce reform plan

On Thursday, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh and US Attorney General Loretta Lynch will announce details of an agreement to reform the city's police department. 

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh delivers an address during her inauguration ceremony inside the War Memorial Building in Baltimore, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016. Ms. Pugh succeeds Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who decided not run for re-election following the unrest in response to Freddie Gray's death.
Patrick Semansky/AP
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On Thursday, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh and US Attorney General Loretta Lynch will announce details of a consent decree that outlines reforms for the Baltimore Police Department. The city's agreement with the US Department of Justice, which will be overseen by an independent monitor, comes months after a federal investigation identified "systemic failures" in Baltimore policing that had violated citizens' civil rights.

Baltimore’s police department has faced intense scrutiny since early 2015, when Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, died from injuries sustained in police custody, sparking protests and rioting. Mr. Gray had been shackled and handcuffed in the back of a police vehicle, but not fastened into a seat belt, and suffered severe neck injuries.

Trials for six police officers ended with no convictions, an outcome that outraged many of the city’s residents.

Almost two years after Gray’s death, Baltimore’s black community, political leaders, and law enforcement members are trying to heal these wounds, and address policing issues that predate the Gray case. A federal investigation released last August found that officers had routinely violated residents' civil rights, with failures including excessive use of force, racial discrimination, and illegal arrests. About 63 percent of the city's residents are black; the investigation found that they accounted for 95 percent of people stopped at least 10 times by police, and about 84 percent of all pedestrian stops. 

The consent decree is an attempt to address these failures. But some Baltimore residents say that the case has already sparked change.

The community is wakening,” Wactor Pierce, a local election volunteer, told The Christian Science Monitor last April. Mr. Pierce was volunteering for a local mayoral campaign in last year’s primary elections, which saw nearly 20 percent higher turnout than even the record-setting 2008 presidential primary, as the Gray case motivated many Baltimoreans to vote and run for office. 

Even before the Justice Department published its report, the city's police department had revised more than two dozen of its procedures, from new guidelines on the use of force to officer training practices.

Baltimore is one of several cities, including Chicago and Ferguson, Mo., where police killings of unarmed black men have prompted calls for reform, bringing the Black Lives Matter movement to national headlines – and controversy. Stark differences remain between how police and many of the communities they serve interpret such incidents, according to a poll released Wednesday by the Pew Charitable Trust: 60 percent of Americans see police shootings as signs of a larger problem, while 67 percent of officers view them as isolated incidents.

But the survey also highlighted numerous areas of agreement, including support for the use of body cameras, relaxing marijuana laws, and the importance of improving police training, as the Monitor reported Wednesday:

"Sometimes, kind of like in politics when Republicans and Democrats seem to have very little in common, an artificial dichotomy is created between the police and the public which makes it appear that they are farther apart on these important social issues than they really are," says Robert Kane, a Drexel University criminologist and coauthor of "Jammed Up: Bad Cops, Police Misconduct, and the New York City Police Department," in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

Points of agreement between police and their critics are often overshadowed by more divisive areas of disagreement, such as the motivations of the Black Lives Matter movement or whether police shootings of black Americans are isolated incidents or part of a larger pattern, Professor Kane and other experts say. But they can serve as a valuable entry point for necessary and oftentimes difficult conversations between the two camps.

This report includes material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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