- Associated Press - Friday, April 7, 2017

BALTIMORE (AP) - A U.S. judge approved an agreement Friday to overhaul the troubled Baltimore Police Department, dealing a blow to the Trump administration that expressed “grave concerns” about the plan.

U.S. District Judge James Bredar signed the agreement one day after a hearing to solicit comments from residents, calling the plan “comprehensive, detailed and precise.”

He wrote in his order that it “is in the public interest” to approve it, denying a request to delay signing off on the agreement to give Trump administration leaders time to review it. The U.S. Justice Department has indicated that it intends to review all existing agreements to determine whether they hinder efforts to fight violent crime.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement Friday that the agreement, negotiated under his predecessor, shows “clear departures from many proven principles of good policing that we fear will result in more crime.”

“The decree was negotiated during a rushed process by the previous administration and signed only days before they left office,” Sessions said. “While the Department of Justice continues to fully support police reform in Baltimore, I have grave concerns that some provisions of this decree will reduce the lawful powers of the police department and result in a less safe city.”

Bredar wrote that he wouldn’t grant the Justice Department more time to review the plan because the agency and city officials had already agreed on it.

Baltimore officials and the Justice Department announced the agreement in January, during the last days of the Obama administration. The agreement is the culmination of an investigation into allegations of rampant abuses in the police department that include excessive force, unlawful stops and discriminatory practices. The investigation, and a scathing report it produced, were prompted by the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man whose neck was broken in the back of a police van. Gray’s death prompted protests and rioting throughout the city.

The Justice Department can appeal the judge’s decision, but it would have to show the judge made an error or abused his discretion. That would be difficult to prove, said Jonathan Smith, a civil rights attorney in the Obama Justice Department who oversaw negotiations with troubled police departments. Justice Department lawyers also could try to modify the consent decree, but the burden to do so is high, requiring them to show there’s been a substantial change in facts or the law, Smith said.

City officials, including Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, have voiced their support for the agreement. Davis has also emphasized the importance of community policing and rebuilding trust with residents as crucial tools in the fight against violent crime. A plan that prioritizes constitutional practices, he said, will make the crime fight more efficient, and more effective.

The police department said in a statement that the consent decree will “support and, in fact, accelerate many needed reforms in the areas of training, technology and internal accountability systems.”

Democratic Mayor Catherine Pugh said Friday in a statement that Bredar’s approval of the agreement will allow the police department to continue “building the bond of trust that must exist between the community and our police officers.”

“Our goal is a stronger police department that fights crime while it serves and protects the civil and constitutional rights of our citizens,” she said.

The judge’s approval signals complications for Sessions as he suggested this week that his Justice Department will retreat from such agreements with troubled police departments across the U.S.

He ordered a sweeping review of agreements with dozens of law enforcement agencies to determine whether they conflict with his crime-fighting agenda. That review could threaten plans that are in negotiation or have not yet been reached, but the judge’s decision Friday was a reminder it would be more difficult to change those that already exist in cities such as Albuquerque, New Mexico; Cleveland and Ferguson, Missouri. The Justice Department can’t change those agreements without court intervention.

Baltimore’s agreement calls for additional training for officers, and discourages them from arresting people for minor offenses such as traffic infractions or loitering. The agreement says officers can no longer detain someone for simply being in a high-crime area, and calls for additional supervisory oversight for misdemeanor arrests. The decree also mandates an overhaul of the way the department handles encounters with mentally ill residents, and sexual assault cases.

Following Gray’s death, the department began implementing some reforms. Officers are outfitted with body-worn cameras, the use-of-force policy has been updated and recruits are required to undergo twice the number of training hours mandated by the state. But the court-approved agreement will help propel forward more expensive and complicated reforms, such as technological advancements including computers in police cars and a centralized data management system.

The president of the Baltimore police union didn’t immediately return a call for comment. Gene Ryan has said previously he thinks the agreement was rushed and has complained the union wasn’t involved enough in negotiations.

The National Fraternal Order of Police said it a statement that it was unhappy with the judge’s decision to move forward.

“We are disappointed, but Baltimore officers will endeavor to give the citizens of Baltimore the best public safety service possible given the constraints imposed upon the department by the decree,” said Jim Pasco, the senior advisor to the group’s president.

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Associated Press writer Sadie Gurman contributed to this report from Washington.

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