In her final days as U.S. Attorney General, Loretta Lynch came to Baltimore to deliver her valedictory speech, extolling the Obama Administration’s efforts to defeat police bias and brutality through community policing and consent decrees such as the one signed yesterday in Baltimore.
“I am deeply proud of all that we have accomplished . . . to help law enforcement officers and community members see themselves not as adversaries, but as allies,” she said, in her “capstone speech” at the University of Baltimore School of Law.
The audience of deans, dignitaries, students and justice advocates applauded warmly, but there was concern in the room as well about something Lynch never really addressed – the idea that the incoming administration of Donald Trump could neuter all the initiatives she had just described.
That fear nagged at Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, who attended Lynch’s talk and reflected on Trump’s choice to succeed Lynch as the head of the Justice Department: Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama.
“I don’t think Senator Sessions is the right person to take over, just like I don’t think Donald Trump is the right person to take over for Barack Obama,” Frosh said. “I really don’t know how to predict what those guys are going to do.”
Could Sessions derail the consent decree intended to address the Justice Department’s scathing report on Baltimore documenting years of discriminatory policing and excessive use of force?
Frosh was hopeful about the decree yet anxious about the timetable, with the agreement still not reviewed by a federal judge with just days to go before Lynch is to leave.
In confirmation hearings, Sessions has expressed skepticism about the use of consent decrees to correct civil rights violations.
“I believe it will be signed, I don’t know whether it will be approved by the court before Obama leaves office,” Frosh told The Brew. “But I’m optimistic it will provide a platform for reform that will be very useful.”
For State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, potential delays were not a concern given that the process is expected to play out over years.
“This is the first step towards progress in breaking down those barriers of distrust with law enforcement in communities,” Mosby said after Lynch’s speech. “I think it’s a roadmap for where we need to go.
A Law-and-Order President
Earlier in the day in City Hall, Lynch had been asked the Trump question directly. She said the consent decree, even after Obama leaves office, “will live on.”
“It is court-enforceable,” she said. “There is an independent monitor.”
Police Commissioner Kevin Davis echoed the sentiment with a vivid turn of phrase.
“It’s no longer a singular person who is pushing reform,” Davis said. “This process will still stand like a mountain.”
The decree is meant to address the root causes of the protests and rioting that erupted in Baltimore in 2015, after the death in police custody of a young black man, Freddie Gray.
The 262-page document, Lynch said, focuses on “building community trust, creating a culture of community and problem-oriented policing, prohibiting unlawful stops and arrests, preventing discriminatory policing and excessive force, ensuring public and officer safety, enhancing officer accountability and making needed technological upgrades.”
New policies, procedures, equipment and training requirements – along with a federal monitor to oversee the agreement – aim to “end Baltimore’s policey of ‘zero-tolerance’ policing,” Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said yesterday.
Meanwhile Trump has spoken glowingly of the kind of policy local critics and the justice Department have said contributed to Baltimore’s problems. “Zero-tolerance” and “stop-and-frisk” were law-and-order catch-phrases candidate Trump uttered often during the campaign.
In her speech at the law school, Lynch said she understood how people could think, “amidst the deluge of headlines and tweets . . . that the cracks in our society are widening, not closing.”
She urged the audience to focus on what she, as a just-appointed Attorney General, learned about Baltimore in April 2015 in the wake of the Freddie Gray unrest.
“Beneath the frustration, there were glimpses of real hope, as well as the same commonalities I had heard before,” Lynch said, harking back to her work as a prosecutor in New York in the 1990s on cases of excessive force by law enforcement.
“In talking to local leaders, protestors, and police officers,” she said, “I heard the same refrain: ‘I love my city. And I want to make it better.’”