January 25, 2016; Baltimore Sun and National Public Radio, “The Two-Way”

“Our country needs more law enforcement, more community engagement, and more effective policing.”

Just how these words from the current White House webpage, “Standing Up For Our Law Enforcement Community,” will be reflected in policy and action will become more evident as the new administration assumes responsibility for the U.S. Justice Department’s (DoJ) look at local police practices and racial bias. This week, a Baltimore Court room may be the place we get a better understanding of civil rights from President Trump’s perspective.

Just days before President Trump was sworn in, the DoJ and the City of Baltimore reached agreement on how the city would respond to the findings of police bias. According to NPR:

“Attorney General Loretta Lynch says the agreement addresses three central issues: effective and constitutional policing, restoring community trust in law enforcement and enhancing public and officer safety. “It reflects significant input from the people of Baltimore,” Lynch said. “It’s all of you. It’s your commitment. It’s your dedication.”

AG Lynch’s words would appear to be well in line with the perspective of the new administration.

The agreement resulted from an in-depth investigation by the DoJ in the wake of the killing of Freddie Gray by a Baltimore police officer, a shooting that sparked great outrage. The department’s report “described widespread racial bias, use of excessive force, repeated patterns of unconstitutional arrests and hostility towards women and LGBT civilians, as well as other civil rights violations.” The process was similar to that used by the Obama administration in Ferguson, Detroit, and more recently in Chicago. The goal of the agreement was to codify the reform program that would address these problems and result in a strengthened community-law enforcement partnership.

But last week, the federal government asked the judge overseeing the Baltimore process to delay a hearing until February 1st because the DoJ “had ‘experienced a transition in leadership’ with Trump’s inauguration and required ‘additional time in order to brief the new leadership of the Department on the case at bar and the proposed Consent Decree before making any representations to the Court….the request was ‘made in good faith and not for the purposes of delay.’”

Before the judge will be answers to questions about the “consent decree, including about its cost, the timeline for compliance, [and] its relation to the local police union’s collective bargaining agreement.” When the sides reconvene on February 1st, we will see if the new administration sees this agreement differently and no longer wishes to proceed with their action.

Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told the Baltimore Sun that the request for a delay was “jarring.”

In Baltimore, we know that the community has been long awaiting relief…the Trump Justice Department’s moves to delay the Baltimore case and a separate case governing voter identification in Texas were unusual and raise grave concerns that the department may be reversing course on important civil rights matters. […] Both matters have been handled by professional, career attorneys in the Justice Department, whose judgment should be trusted rather than second-guessed.

The DoJ’s next steps in Baltimore will be closely watched in Chicago, which just received the results of its own scathing DoJ report on its police department. Past practice would have resulted in Chicago and Washington agreeing on a set of reforms that would be embodied in a court-monitored consent decree. Donald Trump has tweeted about his concern over “carnage” in Chicago’s streets: “If Chicago doesn’t fix the horrible ‘carnage’ going on, 228 shootings in 2017 with 42 killings (up 24% from 2016), I will send in the Feds!” Does this concern extend to the documented racism of the police and the need to rebuild community-police trust?

Jamie Kalven, founder of the Invisible Institute, told the Chicago Maroon that he sees the federal government as no longer being a force for the needed changes. He “has concerns regarding how effective the decree might be under the new administration.”

With the advent of Jeff Sessions’ nomination as the new attorney general, Kalven foresees little to no federal oversight of problematic police departments. “We don’t have the national government as an ally in the process anymore, but we have a lot of capacity to move the process forward here. And this is where it has to happen; Washington can assist, but we have to do it.”

On February 1st, we’ll learn how accurate Kalven’s projection is, and how much more difficult the struggle for fair policing will become.—Martin Levine