U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said Thursday that she’ll decide soon whether to open a full-scale civil rights investigation of the Baltimore police force.
“We’re currently in the process of considering the request from city officials and community leaders for an investigation into whether the Baltimore Police Department engaged in a pattern or practice of civil rights violations, and I intend to have a decision in the coming days,” Lynch told a Senate appropriations subcommittee.
Lynch, who is making her first appearance before a congressional panel since being confirmed by the Senate on April 23, was asked Wednesday to initiate the probe by Baltimore’s mayor, a week after the city was racked by riots and protests over the death of a black man in police custody. It would be unusual for the Justice Department not to open a civil rights probe upon the request of a mayor.
During her remarks, she pledged to make fighting financial crime a top priority for the Justice Department. While serving as the top U.S. prosecutor in the Eastern District of New York, Lynch’s office had a hand in the Bank of America Corp. case, winning the biggest settlement ever against a U.S. corporation.
“No entity is above the law, no individual is above the law, no one is too big to jail or to fail,” said Lynch, who is inheriting several remaining investigations of lenders that helped fuel the housing bubble and subsequent financial crisis.
Lynch, 55, who replaced Eric Holder as attorney general, hasn’t disclosed much about her priorities, beyond mentioning the importance of battling human trafficking and terrorism and cybercrime. Within hours after she was sworn in on April 27, Baltimore erupted into violence, forcing her to confront the combustible and difficult issues of race and policing that consumed much of her predecessor’s final months.
The Justice Department is already conducting a lower-level probe of the city’s police force. But Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said in a letter released Wednesday that a fuller investigation would help restore trust. Such “patterns and practices” investigations often result in settlements to address problems, though the department can also file a federal lawsuit to seek changes.
The mayor’s request came a week after she imposed a curfew and Maryland National Guard troops were brought in to respond to riots that erupted following the April 27 funeral of Freddie Gray, 25, who died on April 19 after suffering spinal-cord injuries. Baltimore’s top prosecutor announced criminal charges on May 1 against six officers in connection with Gray’s arrest, a move that helped ease tensions.
The incident was the latest in a series of high-profile instances since last summer of black men dying in confrontations or while in the custody of police officers. The deaths sparked protests from suburban St. Louis to New York City.
Lynch has just 21 months until President Barack Obama leaves office, giving her limited time to cement a legacy at the Justice Department, which has an annual budget of $26 billion. The department’s 116,000 employees include those who work as agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, as well as federal prosecutors, grant specialists and analysts.
Lynch, the daughter of a Baptist preacher and a librarian, grew up in North Carolina and attended Harvard and Harvard Law School. She was a federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of New York for nine years before becoming its chief prosecutor in 1999. She left the office in 2001 to enter private practice and returned to the U.S. attorney’s post in 2010.
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