- The Washington Times - Friday, April 17, 2015

Department of Justice officials met with Baltimore citizens Thursday to discuss police misconduct in the wake of new allegations that local police critically injured a man while he was in their custody Sunday, which put him into a coma.

Hundreds of people, most of them blacks, said they were fed up with how the Baltimore Police Department officers have beat them, disregarded their rights, or made them feel afraid. They gathered in Coppin State University’s gymnasium to air their woes to Rob Chapman, deputy director of community policing advancement for the department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, run out of the Department of Justice.

The town hall meeting was the first between federal officials and the Baltimore residents. It comes just as fresh turmoil is stirring between the city’s police department and the community.

On Sunday, Freddie Gray, a 27-year-old black man, was allegedly beaten by the Baltimore police after trying to flee arrest, and on Monday was in a coma and in critical condition with injuries on the spinal cord.

Witnesses claimed that the police used excessive force, and Baltimore Police Deputy Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez said the department is looking into the case. The officers involved have been transferred to administrative duties, Mr. Rodriguez said in a press conference earlier this week.



An internal police email, obtained by The Washington Times, shows that officers received an over-the-phone threat several hours before the town hall meeting began Thursday that Baltimore “gangs were going to kill any police” who returned to the area where Mr. Gray was injured.

“Let’s not panic, but exercise extreme caution and officer safety,” the Baltimore police chief of patrol instructed fellow officers in the email. The chief then urged those officers to buddy up when operating in the area.

Department of Justice officials have been reviewing the policies and procedures of the Baltimore Police Department — a step toward reforming one of the largest police forces in the nation. The review is just one of many oversight measures that the department is taking in an effort to quell the tension between in fractured communities across the United States.

But Baltimore’s frustration is also being directed at federal officials, who some community members blame for stirring that tension by a Justice Department effort to crack down on drug dealers who sell illegal drugs on the streets.

“It is your DOJ drug war that is killing our people,” shouted 55-year-old David Wiggins, a Baltimore resident, at the town hall meeting Thursday evening.

Another man, who declined to give his name, angrily blurted at Mr. Chapman: “I don’t expect no justice to come from the Justice Department.”

Mr. Chapman made opening comments, but sat quietly by as Rob Davis, a senior vice president at Hillard Heintze, a security risk management company, called people up to speak and politely tried to cut them off after they spoke for more than three minutes.

Mr. Davis, a former police chief, is assisting the Justice Department with an independent review of Baltimore police use of force and allegations of police misconduct.

The Justice Department is facing a uphill climb in two aspects — first is to win the trust of the community, that the federal audit will right Baltimore police force’s wrongs, but also to win over the police force, who are worried their department will be scrutinized as heavily as in Ferguson, Missouri, where the DOJ called for the overhaul of their criminal justice system in a scathing report, said Jon Adler, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association.

The report — sanctioned by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder — accused the Ferguson Police Department of engaging in law enforcement practices “directly shaped and perpetuated by racial bias” — a conclusion that sent a wave of “spillover emotions” through the nation’s numerous police departments, he said.

“There was a lot of apprehension after Ferguson, regarding the attorney general’s position on policing issues,” Mr. Adler said. “There was a sense that he sort of lost faith in law enforcement and law enforcement, in turn, lost confidence in him.”

However, the Justice Department has had some successes with local police departments. On Thursday, its officials celebrated a decision by a Washington state district judge to approve a department-wide training program developed by the Seattle Police Department and endorsed by the Justice Department. That program, known as a tactical-de-escalation training program, would increase officer safety and resolve “a pattern and practice of excessive use of force” by Seattle police officers, according to an April 16 Department of Justice statement.

“All 1,300 sworn officers of the SPD will be trained in tactical de-escalation skills and strategies through the newly approved program,” the statement reads. “The goal of the training is to teach SPD officers that tactical de-escalation is more than a set of specific skills but also an overarching approach to incident resolution and community policing. De-escalation more broadly refers to the strategic slowing down of an incident in a manner that allows officers more time, distance, space and tactical flexibility during dynamic situations on the street.”

The Baltimore Police Department was not able to answer a question by The Times on whether it requires its officers to participate in a tactical de-escalation training program.

Baltimore Police Department Commissioner Anthony Batts initially reached out to the Justice Department in October 2014 for assistance in finding better policing practices and addressing allegations that its officers have used excessive force while on the job.

Two months later, Mr. Batts was tapped to serve on President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which was established after nationwide protests erupted over police abuse of authority and lack of accountability in various police departments.

Improving the Baltimore Police Department’s policies and practices will take time, Mr. Chapman cautioned.

Once complete, however, Justice Department officials will make public their findings on police deficiencies and make recommendations on how to address those deficiencies in a report.

“We’ll be back in Baltimore in several months to issue our findings and recommendations,” Mr. Chapman promised the emotional crowd.

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