BALTIMORE (AP) — The humiliating resignation of the Baltimore police force's last commissioner is a major setback to initial efforts to ramp up progress complying with a federal oversight program requiring sweeping police reforms, the judge overseeing the entire process said Thursday.
U.S. District Judge James Bredar said he'd remain doubtful of Baltimore's ability to put the slew of mandated reforms in place until it successfully finds a seasoned law enforcement leader who has what it takes "to lead this department out of the wilderness."
Some 2 ½ months since Darryl De Sousa resigned as Baltimore's commissioner after being criminally charged with failing to file three years of taxes, Bredar said the instability at the top of the department is not only a "big blow" to the reform process but also poses a "profound danger of chaos and confusion down in the ranks."
The federal judge made the comments before city and U.S. officials, the acting police commissioner and an independent monitoring team attending the second public court hearing to discuss how progress was going reforming the 165-year-old force.
A consent decree, filed in federal court and overseen by a monitor, is generally a road map for changes in fundamental police department practices. In Baltimore's case, the Justice Department agreement mandates changes in the most fundamental aspects of daily police work, including use of force, searches and arrests.
Baltimore and the Justice Department entered into the consent decree early last year after federal investigators detailed longstanding patterns of unconstitutional policing, racial profiling and excessive force in the eighth largest municipal police department in the United States.
Federal authorities began investigating city police following the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray, a young black man who was fatally injured while in the custody of officers. The force has gone through three commissioners since Gray's death and the massive unrest it triggered.
City Solicitor Andre Davis, picked by Baltimore's mayor to lead the selection process, vowed that the next commissioner would be on the job "before Halloween." He told Bredar they have over 10 applications so far, including three "highly regarded law enforcement experts."
Davis described the job leading the Baltimore police department as the most challenging law enforcement position in America, hands down.
"It's a challenge for anybody to come in and fix this broken department," Davis said, adding that the city was committed to making the mandated reforms and would ultimately be successful in complying with the years-long decree process.
Bredar praised the solicitor's passion but said that until the leadership void was successfully filled he would remain skeptical of the city's chances. "This is Baltimore. The realities of what we face are not lost on any of us," he said.
Interim Commissioner Gary Tuggle, who is seeking the top job permanently, used the Thursday hearing as a kind of introduction, touting himself as a "transformational leader" who was committed to boosting accountability, engaging the community and improving officer morale.
Bredar described the work Tuggle has done so far as "impressive" but said he had a "nearly impossible job" as interim leader of the beleaguered force. He said the next commissioner, whoever that may be, must inspire officers and persuade the community that the city's police force is a highly professional and ethical agency.
Confidence in Baltimore's sworn protectors has badly deteriorated in recent years, but it might have hit rock bottom this year after De Sousa's charges and admissions that corrupt police detectives on an out-of-control unit called the Gun Trace Task Force resold looted narcotics, conducted home invasions and falsified evidence.
Ray Kelly of the No Boundaries Coalition, an advocacy group in West Baltimore, said progress was slow and agreed with Bredar's assessment that the leadership chaos had to stop. But he said there is no place to go but up.
"There is no trust now. There is no faith. There's always been a sense that this department won't change until it is forced to change. Well, what we have here is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fix it and we've got to get it right," Kelly said.
Justice Department official Stephen Ryals said the government was pleased with some initial progress Baltimore was making toward compliance but he called for the city to "look inward" to assess what can be changed quickly so they can gain some momentum. He described independent civilian oversight of the force as "absolutely crucial."
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