How Baltimore's 'Consent Decree' Could Reduce Police Brutality

Following a year-long civil rights investigation, the U.S. Department of Justice and the City of Baltimore on Thursday revealed an agreement — known as a "consent decree" — aimed at addressing racist and abusive practices within the Baltimore Police Department. The department drew national attention after Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, died while in the back of a police van.

The consent decree, which requires Baltimore police to institute changes called for by the federal government, has been welcomed by criminal justice reform advocates.

Civil rights activist and Baltimore native DeRay Mckesson, who spoke to ATTN:, reviewed the 227-page consent decree, which is still awaiting a final signature by a federal judge, and tweeted that the agreement appeared comprehensive and effective.

Federal officials opened an investigation into the department in 2015, after an unarmed Gray died from injuries sustained while he was being transported to jail. Six officers were charged in connection Gray's death, although none were ultimately convicted charged in Gray's death. An internal department review found officers had violated policy by failing to properly secure Gray in the police van.

The subsequent federal civil rights investigation turned up evidence of widespread misconduct, constitutional violations, and discriminatory policing practices in Baltimore. In an effort to resolve these issues, the Justice Department is ordering the department to pursue a set of reforms, including accountability provisions, legal protections for individuals who record police activity, new training guidelines that emphasize de-escalation, and a policy prohibiting officers from detaining individuals on the sole basis they are in a high-crime area.

You can read the full consent decree here.


The decree "is as aggressive as the [investigation's] findings were," Mckesson told ATTN:, and "goes to the roots of policing, and not just the cosmetic changes."

"It is an impressive decree," Mckesson continued, "and perhaps one of the strongest the DOJ has ever issued."

"Some consent decrees are sort of line-by-line edits of use-of-force policies or other policies and don’t address the structure of the department itself, or the systems that undergird all of the actions that the police take," Mckesson said. This one, by contrast, actually "addresses the components that make up the culture of the police department."

It remains to be seen whether the Baltimore Police Department will live up to the standard mandated by this decree, though. A report by The Marshall Project's Simone Weichselbaum noted a pattern of noncompliance with similar agreements elsewhere. In New Jersey, for example, the Justice Department handed down reform guidelines after it determined that New Jersey state troopers disproportionately pulled over black and Hispanic drivers; researchers at Columbia University later found that while discriminatory traffic stops decreased, troopers were still three times as likely to search minorities than whites.


"That’s the problem with consent decrees,” Jeffrey Fagan, a Columbia Law School professor who led the study, told The Marshall Project. “They did everything that was asked of them except stop profiling.”

In other words, consent decrees might be able to address specific issues, but they tend to fall short of resolving systemic policing problems such as discrimination. 

Still, Mckesson is hopeful that the Baltimore Police Department will follow through — not only because the consent decree in this case was exceptionally thorough, but also because city government officials and activists are prioritizing policing reform.

"I think the citizens of Baltimore will hold the elected officials accountable," Mckesson said. "There’s a new administration and a new city council that’s interested in these issues, and that’s important. So I look forward to seeing the implementation of this."