Citing an “erosion of trust,” new U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced Friday that she has ordered a civil rights investigation into whether the embattled Baltimore Police Department has systematically used excessive force, made unlawful arrests or otherwise discriminated against minorities.
Lynch’s decision comes just a week after the city was paralyzed by rioting over the death of a young African-American man, Freddie Gray, while in police custody, leading a county prosecutor to lodge criminal charges against six police officers. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake asked Lynch to a broader investigation earlier this week.
Lynch said the federal investigation will examine “whether the Baltimore Police Department has engaged in a pattern or practice of violations of the Constitution or federal law.”
“This investigation will begin immediately, and will focus on allegations that Baltimore Police Department officers use excessive force, including deadly force, conduct unlawful searches, seizures and arrests; and engage in discriminatory policing,” said Lynch, who was sworn in as attorney general on April 27th. “ … Our goal is to work with the community, public officials and law enforcement alike to create a stronger, better Baltimore.”
The Justice Department’s intervention mirrors its action after similar racial unrest in Ferguson, Mo., last year over the fatal police shooting of an unarmed teenager. It marks the 22nd Justice Department investigation into whether law enforcement agencies across the country have exhibited a pattern or practice of civil rights abuses since President Obama, the nation’s first African-American president, took office. That’s double the number in the last five years of the Bush administration.
So far, the Special Litigation Section of the department’s Civil Rights Division is enforcing agreements with 16 law enforcement agencies, including 10 court consent decrees requiring reforms in their operations, including police departments in New Orleans, Seattle and Detroit.
In jurisdictions where the department civil rights lawyers have examined policing practices, she said, “we have seen from our work … that communities that have gone through this process are experiencing improved policing practices and increased trust between the police and the community.”
The federal investigation could last many months and potentially result in significant policy, personnel changes and officer retraining in the Baltimore Police Department.
The Justice Department inquiry is not related to the criminal charges filed last Friday against six police officers by Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby. The officers face a variety of charges, ranging from second-degree murder to involuntary manslaughter, for the events leading to Gray’s death after he suffered severe spinal injuries.
Separately, the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing has been working with the Baltimore police to reform some of its practices and that work will continue, the department said.