BALTIMORE — A U.S. judge on Friday stressed to Baltimore's political and police leaders that compliance with a federal oversight program requiring expansive police reforms is not optional.
One year after signing a federal consent decree despite objections from President Donald Trump's Justice Department, U.S. District Judge James Bredar held the first public court hearing in Baltimore to review how initial progress is going. He didn't mince words.
Bredar described the relationship between the Baltimore Police Department and the community it serves as "fundamentally broken." He said the force has displayed a "lack of integrity" over years. And he said that only "a lot of sweat" will solve its "deep and embedded" problems.
The federal consent decree was authorized in January 2017 after the U.S. Justice Department released a scathing report detailing longstanding patterns of racial profiling and excessive force within the city's police force.
During the Obama administration, the Justice Department began investigating the Baltimore police following the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray, a young black man who was fatally injured while in the custody of officers. The agreement for the decree was reached shortly before Obama left office.
A consent decree, filed in federal court and overseen by a monitor, is typically a road map for changes in fundamental police department practices. In Baltimore's case, the Justice Department agreement mandates changes in the most fundamental aspects of daily police work, including use of force, searches and arrests.
On Friday, Bredar focused on several areas that have been the subject of recent conferences by officials: force, transportation of detainees, misconduct investigations, and badly-needed technological upgrades.
Likening the police reform process to fixing a dilapidated house, Bredar said he didn't want to hear about short-term or superficial solutions but was looking for "evidence of genuine and enduring reform."
"I don't want to hear about fresh coats of paint," Bredar quipped in a federal courtroom before Baltimore's mayor, police commissioner and an independent monitoring team.
Mayor Catherine Pugh promised that compliance is a top priority for her administration, while Police Commissioner Darryl DeSousa pledged that his department would "be in full compliance" at a future date.
During his comments in the courtroom, DeSousa also made another public apology for a wildly corrupt police unit called the Gun Trace Task Force that he said "set our police department back 30, 40, 50 years" and was the focus of an explosive racketeering trial earlier this year. DeSousa took over leadership of the force earlier this year after his predecessor was fired.
Bredar, who noted that two disgraced Gun Trace Task Force detectives were convicted by a jury in the very courtroom where Friday's hearing took place, said he didn't doubt the good intentions of Baltimore's leaders. But he voiced concerns whether the police department and the city has "the capability to pull this off" while noting that the reforms will have to be carried out by officers on the street.
One of the few citizens attending the court hearing was Ray Kelly of the No Boundaries Coalition, an advocacy group in West Baltimore, a swath of the city only too familiar with discriminatory and unconstitutional policing.
Kelly said he was hopeful about the future of the consent decree but expressed some frustration with how the agreement's first year has progressed, comparing the city's efforts so far to a slow-moving train.
"They just need to break some champagne over this bad boy and get it moving," he said.
The sweeping consent decree process in Baltimore will take years to fully implement. Bredar said he wanted officials to tell him by April 2019 when they believe full compliance will be achieved and when they think the city can be released from federal oversight.