Federal judge in Baltimore approves sweeping plan for police reforms

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Story highlights

  • The court denied the Justice Department's request for more time to review the proposed decree
  • The judge called the need for the decree "urgent"

(CNN)A federal judge in Baltimore approved a sweeping consent decree Friday that outlines extensive reforms now required for the city's police department, finding that "time is of the essence."

Less than three months ago, Baltimore and the Justice Department under then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch agreed on the terms of the decree after a federal investigation of the Baltimore police department revealed patterns of unconstitutional treatment of the city's black residents and excessive force. The investigation was launched following the death of Freddie Gray.
Yet the Justice Department told US District Court Judge James Bredar in court Thursday that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had "grave concerns" about the proposed decree and asked for asked for 30 days to review it.
    In a strongly-worded order, Bredar flatly rejected that request, concluding that it would be "extraordinary for the court to permit one side to unilaterally amend an agreement already jointly reached and signed."
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    "The time for expressing 'grave concerns' has passed and instead the parties must now execute the agreement as they promised they would," Bredar wrote.
    He granted the parties' 227-page draft decree with only minor modifications.
    "The problems that necessitate this consent decree are urgent," Bredar continued. "The parties have agreed on a detailed and reasonable approach to solving them. Now, it is time to enter the decree and thereby require all involved to get to work on repairing the many fractures so poignantly revealed by the record."
    The reforms required are considerable, including cameras placed in all police transport vans, and Bredar will retain jurisdiction over the case while the decree is in effect.
    Sessions said in a statement Friday that he feared "some provisions of this decree will reduce the lawful powers of the police department and result in a less safe city," citing recent crime statistics in the city.
    "The mayor and police chief in Baltimore say they are committed to better policing and that there should be no delay to review this decree, but there are clear departures from many proven principles of good policing that we fear will result in more crime," Sessions added.
    But the mayor of Baltimore said the city will continue to move forward in reforming the police department.
    "Our goal is a stronger police department that fights crime while it serves and protects the civil and constitutional rights of our residents," Mayor Catherine E. Pugh said in a statement. "I am confident in our mutual commitment to reforms and to the citizens of Baltimore."
    Bredar's approval of the consent decree prompted an outpouring of support from advocates of police reform.
    Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund Inc., called the ruling "a true victory."
    "(T)his agreement provides the necessary framework to eradicate widespread and systemic police misconduct through sustainable reform. This consent decree will help radically transform the BPD, improve public safety and build community trust," Ifill said.
    Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, echoed Ifill, and said the decree "may serve as a model of reform for other similarly-situated police departments across the country. Today's decision is a victory for the people of Baltimore who have been subject to unconstitutional policing practices, including excessive force, for far too long."
    Before making his decision, the judge sat for nearly four hours on Thursday as dozens of Baltimore city residents stepped forward to tell gut-wrenching stories.
    While the crowd was diverse, their stories were consistently tales of children killed, domestic violence survivors living in fear, and of those with mental-health challenges being abused by Baltimore police.
    The vast majority encouraged Bredar to enter the consent decree without delay.
    "Innocent people are dying, the status quo cannot stand," Rabbi Daniel Burg told the judge. "What a story it would make if Baltimore became a story about what is right in policing."