In mid-January, just before leaving office, then-U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch came to Baltimore and joined Mayor Catherine Pugh and Police Commissioner Kevin Davis for a press conference at City Hall to announce the signing of a consent decree for the Baltimore City Police Department. But just what is a consent decree?
“It’s an agreement between the Department of Justice and a municipality, like in this case the city of Baltimore. But what is different from your typical contract is that it is made a part of a case,” said Professor David Jaros, an associate professor in the University of Baltimore School of Law. “So it’s as if the case is filed in court,” continued Jaros. “And it’s going to go to trial, but instead there’s just an agreement that this is a settlement, and a consent decree usually involves one side, the defendant, agreeing to take certain steps to remedy the problem.” Jaros explained that those steps are overseen by an independent monitor, and can be enforced by the courts. If a municipality is found to not be in compliance with the terms of the consent decree, it can be held in contempt.
Baltimore was not a reluctant defendant forced to
the bargaining table, but really seemed to be a partner
in the negotiation of the consent decree, in many
respects, and there seems to be I think at this point
some optimism that the city is truly committed to
eradicating this kind of problem —David Jaros
The consent decree results from a more than year-long investigation by the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division into the police department’s practices following the April 2015 in-custody death of Freddie Gray and the riots that erupted following his funeral. That investigation culminated with a release of a report in the summer of 2016 that contained damning conclusions about the practices of Baltimore police officers in regards to their treatment of minority residents. The report concluded that for many years and on a routine basis, police unconstitutionally and illegally stopped and detained African-American and Hispanic residents.
Jaros explained that the Civil Rights Division got involved in Baltimore as part of its mandate to protect the civil rights of citizens. “And when there are violations, they are empowered to go in and sue, and so it is their mandate to try and protect the civil liberties of people like the citizens of Baltimore, for whom the consent decree actually stated that their rights under federal law were being violated by the Baltimore Police Department.” He added that consent decrees have the potential to be a very useful tool in protecting civil rights because it allows the Justice Department and a local police department to work out very specific solutions to the problems in a specific community, without having to go to court.
Following the release of the report, the Department of Justice and the city began negotiating on the terms of the consent decree. Jaros explained that the report really outlined the issues that established how the police department was violating federal law with its practices.
“And so that report was sort of the first step towards getting to sort of the practical solution side of things, which was the consent decree. And that report involved everything from detailing the use of excessive force by police officers to the unconstitutional arrest and seizure of citizens, and in particular of minorities,” Jaros said. “And it detailed that there was a pattern and practice, and those are key sort of magical words that trigger the law, the constitutional rights of Baltimore citizens.” Jaros says the key part of the consent decree was establishing requirements for the police department and the city to ensure that the violations of residents’ civil rights wouldn’t continue in the future.
Jaros says it’s too early to tell if this consent decree will make a difference in the lives of minority Baltimoreans. In the past, Jaros said the Justice Department’s report described problems with how Baltimore police officers are trained and how the resources police officers need to do their jobs well have historically not been available to them. He also described how consent decrees between the Justice Department and other police departments, regarding civil rights violations, have historically had mixed results. Jaros says a key factor is the willingness of municipalities to abide by the agreements and provide the resources that their police departments need for training and to do their jobs properly. He commended the city government for its willingness to work with the Justice Department on the consent decree.
“Baltimore was not a reluctant defendant forced to the bargaining table, but really seemed to be a partner in the negotiation of the consent decree, in many respects, and there seems to be I think at this point some optimism that the city is truly committed to eradicating this kind of problem,” Jaros said. He acknowledged that the city has a lot of social challenges and issues to address in its inner-city neighborhoods, and challenges in policing tend to follow along with those issues in inner cities. Jaros said the consent decree is simply a step in the right direction, and not a cure-all for the challenges and issues the city faces.