US opens federal civil rights probe of Baltimore police

The US Department of Justice launched a federal civil rights investigation Friday into whether police in Baltimore have systematically engaged in discriminatory actions, after the death of an African-American man in police custody.

The death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who succumbed to a serious spinal injury suffered while in the back of a police van last month, sparked violent unrest that led authorities to declare a city-wide curfew and deploy the National Guard.

Six police officers have been charged in connection with his arrest and death. One faces a second-degree murder charge.

“The Department of Justice is opening an investigation into whether the Baltimore Police Department has engaged in a pattern or practice of violations of the Constitution or federal law,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced, in one of her first acts since being sworn in less than two weeks ago as the nation’s top law enforcement official.

“This investigation will begin immediately and will focus on allegations that Baltimore Police Department officers use excessive force including deadly force, conduct unlawful searches, seizures and arrests, and engage in discriminatory policing.”

The riots that erupted in Maryland’s largest city — just an hour’s drive north of Washington — after Gray’s funeral left shops looted and dozens of police officers injured, and led to hundreds of arrests.

“It was clear that recent events, including the tragic, in-custody death of Freddie Gray, had given rise to a serious erosion of public trust,” Lynch said.

– ‘Generations of mistrust’ –

Gray’s death occurred at a time of exacerbated tensions in the United States over police treatment of blacks, following the death of a number of unarmed black men at the hands of officers.

One of the most prominent cases was that of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was fatally shot in Ferguson, Missouri last year, sparking extensive and sometimes violent protests across the nation.

The white officer who shot Brown, Darren Wilson, was not indicted in Brown’s death. But in a searing report, the Justice Department said it found a widespread pattern of racial discrimination by Ferguson’s largely white police force, and multiple violations of citizens’ constitutional rights.

The Baltimore probe, described as a “pattern-or-practice investigation,” has been employed in communities around the nation. It does not focus on individual cases, aiming instead to determine whether a police force has engaged in systemic or persistent patterns of misconduct.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake welcomed the investigation.

“Our city is making progress in repairing the fractured relationship between police and community, but bolder reforms are needed and we will not shy away from taking on these challenges,” Rawlings-Blake said.

Lynch, poised and composed given the critical nature of one of her first appearances before reporters in her new position, said the review will lead to a report detailing possible reforms going forward.

“We are talking about generations of mistrust and generations of communities that feel separated from government overall,” she said.

“You’re talking about situations where there is a flashpoint occurrence that coalesces years of frustration and anger,” she added.

“That is what we saw in Baltimore when it was an unfortunate night of violence. You see it in other cities as well.”

Lynch met in Baltimore Tuesday with civic and faith leaders, lawmakers and police officers to discuss ways to improve police-community ties, help neglected and impoverished neighborhoods, and better protect residents.

“None of us has illusions,” she said.

“The challenges that we face and that Baltimore faces now did not arise in a day and change will not come overnight. It will take time and sustained effort.”

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