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Baltimore Mayor On The Future Of Police Department Overhaul

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump complained that federal scrutiny of local police departments undermines morale and gets in the way of crime fighting. His new attorney general, Jeff Sessions, made it clear in a February speech that the Trump administration will take a different approach.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

JEFF SESSIONS: President Trump issued an order. And he doesn't issue modest orders. He said - to the attorney general - he said the policy of this executive branch is to reduce crime in America.

MARTIN: This week, Jeff Sessions ordered a review of the Justice Department's police reform agreements. The first city to feel the impact of this policy change is Baltimore, which had been negotiating a so-called consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department. That's a court-supervised plan to correct civil rights violations by Baltimore police. To talk about this, we are joined now on the line by Baltimore's mayor, Catherine Pugh. Mayor, thanks so much for being with us.

CATHERINE PUGH: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: What do you make of this move by the Justice Department?

PUGH: Well, let me just say we're not trying to read anything into it. But we did file an objection to the pause because we believe that what we'd negotiated with the Department of Justice is fair when you think about the 163-page report that outlined different infractions by the police department, you know, impartial policing, unnecessary stops, use of force, inability to interact with the community in a positive way.

And, you know, they didn't just look at that. They looked at some of the technology needs of the police department, the lack of body cameras, the lack of straps inside of vans. So we believe that we negotiated a fair consent decree and one that will improve the relationships with the police department and the community.

MARTIN: So you mentioned this pause. The Justice Department has asked for a 90-day delay on this consent decree. And you actually had a hearing in federal court that was scheduled for tomorrow. Now all of this is being delayed. So what have federal authorities told you about the kinds of questions they want answered in this time?

PUGH: Well. Let me just say I've been before the federal court? And the only thing they asked me was. Did I completely understand the ramifications of the consent decree? And I said absolutely. Would Baltimore be in a position to be able to afford a consent decree? And I said we understood all ramifications and that we don't know exactly what the cost would be. But what we do know is that the cost to creating trust between the police department and the community is unmeasurable.

MARTIN: So the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, says that it's not the federal government's responsibility to manage local police forces, that local authorities should take back control of that. Why, as a local official, wouldn't that be appealing to you?

PUGH: Well, I think that - well, we don't see the consent decree as taking over the police department. What we see the consent decree was an opportunity for us, the police department and the community and the city to sit down and say, what is it that we need to do? What must be put in place to, one, create that trust, to stop the infractions that were being courted by our particular police department? What do you need in order to have your police department more effective and more efficient? And so we believe that...

MARTIN: And why do you need the federal government as a partner in that?

PUGH: Because it also opens up the opportunity for us to be able to secure dollars at both the federal and the state level and private funding so that we can get the technology that is needed to monitor the police department, to put body cameras on all police officers, to put the equipment - I mean, this comes at a cost. And we believe that kind of oversight is necessary. And we also believe that the monitor that puts in place for the community to monitor these actions to make sure it's done is necessary.

MARTIN: So that's an important thing to note. You're afraid that if the Justice Department rolls back this consent decree that the federal dollars will go away for these reforms you want to implement.

PUGH: The federal dollars will go away. And the confidence in the police department by the communities will be eroded.

MARTIN: What does the police union in Baltimore have to say about this change in policy? I mean, President Trump, Jeff Sessions have talked a lot about this as a way to up the morale of police forces who have felt demoralized by all the attacks made on them.

PUGH: Well, I don't think that our consent decree, one, talks just about the attacks. It talks about the need for better training. I mean, when you witness some of the things that the 163-page report talked about, I think that you'd understand the need for such a consent decree - how we handle people with disabilities, how we handle people with mental illness, the unnecessary use of force, the violation of the First Amendment rights of individuals.

I think that, you know, this is why the federal, you know, it's like, well, who do you go to? Because I can tell you all day long what you need to do. When there is a report that explicitly lays out what has been done wrong, I think it puts everything into perspective. I know that we're currently - you're asking about the FOP - we're currently in negotiations with the FOP around some of the issues related to...

MARTIN: The union, yeah.

PUGH: ...Unions. So I don't want to get into that.

MARTIN: Let me just ask you in the seconds we have remaining, what is the relationship between the police and the community right now? In just seconds.

PUGH: I think it's better. I think it's getting better. It's getting better, one, because they believe that this consent decree is necessary. I have a great relationship with our police commissioner. He understands it, wants us to move forward. It's improving.

MARTIN: Catherine Pugh, mayor of Baltimore, thank you so much for your time this morning.

PUGH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.