U.S. Opens Civil-Rights Investigation of Baltimore Police

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The U.S. Justice Department opened a full-scale civil rights investigation of the Baltimore police force following the death of a black man who was injured while in custody.

U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch decided to grant the request of the city’s mayor for a federal inquiry into the police department’s practices and whether there are patterns of misconduct. The probe will explore whether officers there have engaged in racial profiling or used excessive force.

“Rather than examining whether the police department violated good policies, we will now examine whether they violated the Constitution and community civil rights,” Lynch said at a news conference Friday in Washington. “None of us has any illusion that reform is easy. Reform will not come overnight.”

Lynch said the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division would conduct the inquiry, which will start immediately. She said her agency would seek court action to redress police practices if civil-rights violations are found. She upgraded a probe that has already been taking place of whether city officers violated policies to a broader civil-rights inquiry.

During her remarks, Lynch said “the community’s rather frayed trust, to use an understatement” was a reason to open the full-scale investigation and not just do collaborative reform. The concerns of residents were “much more serious and much more intense” now than when the earlier review began.

‘Profound Sadness’

Lynch, 55, who replaced Eric Holder as attorney general, was sworn in just hours before Baltimore erupted into violence on April 27, forcing her to confront the combustible and difficult issues of race and policing that consumed much of her predecessor’s final months.

She said she watched on television last week as the violence unfolded in Baltimore, which is about 40 miles (65 kilometers) northeast of Washington.

“My first reaction was profound sadness,” she said.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said in a letter released Wednesday that a fuller civil-rights investigation would help restore trust after the city was racked by riots and protests over the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray.

Such “patterns and practices” investigations often result in settlements to address problems, though the department can also file a federal lawsuit to seek changes.

Gray’s Family

Gray 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.

Lynch and her top civil-rights attorneys spent much of Tuesday in Baltimore, meeting with Gray’s family, community leaders and police officials. Lynch told a group of activists that “you all know there’s a lot of work to be done,” according to a pool report of her visit. “All of you have worked so hard on these issues. I’m here to listen and meet with young people.”

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.