Lynch to Lawmakers: DOJ Responsibility to 'Help Prevent Circumstances' That Led to Baltimore Riots

WASHINGTON – Appearing before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce-Justice-Science on Thursday to discuss the Justice Department’s funding request, Attorney General Loretta Lynch told lawmakers that Baltimore police had made some progress in dealing with the public but acknowledged that “more may need to be done.”

“We’re currently in the process of considering the request from city officials and community and police leaders for an investigation into whether the Baltimore City Police Department engaged in a pattern or practice of civil rights violations,” she said. “And I intend to have a decision in the coming days.”

That decision came quickly. She announced Friday that the Justice Department should commence an investigation into the Baltimore Police Department amid claims that the agency has employed excessive force and violated individuals' civil rights in carrying out its duties.

Lynch, who visited the city on May 5,  said she spoke with a Baltimore policeman who was injured in a recent spate of violence and noted, “I heard a number of ideas regarding ways in which the Justice Department can continue assisting Baltimore as they work to recover from recent unrest.”

Baltimore experienced some violent protests after the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, an African-American who was in police custody. Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby subsequently filed charges against six Baltimore policemen whom prosecutors claim were involved in his demise.

Mosby maintained Gray was illegally arrested and severely mistreated at the hands of police. He suffered a spinal injury during the encounter and his pleas for assistance went unheeded. Protests broke out after news of the death spread through the community.

Baltimore is only the latest city to experience unrest as a result of citizen complaints about undue police force. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake told reporters that she asked the Justice Department to initiate an investigation to determine if the Baltimore Police Department was involved in instances of discrimination and the use of excessive force.

Lynch assured lawmakers that her department will “continue to work to ensure justice, restore calm and resolve unrest.”

“The situation in Baltimore involves a core responsibility of the Department of Justice -- not only to combat illegal conduct when it occurs but to help prevent the circumstances that give rise to it in the first place,” Lynch said. “When there are allegations of wrongdoing made against individual officers and police departments, the Department of Justice has a responsibility to examine the evidence and, if necessary, implement changes.”

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the ranking member on the Senate Appropriations Committee, told Lynch that she would be joining with Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) in sending a letter to the Department of Justice seeking the “pattern and practices” investigation of the Baltimore Police Department.

“In many cities throughout the country, including my own city of Baltimore, the trust between community and police is broken,” Mikulski said. “We must do all we can to restore that trust.  We need criminal justice reform undertaken with the fierce urgency of now.”

Mikulski cited information from the American Civil Liberties Union showing that there were more than 120,000 police stops in Baltimore in 2012. And for all that the city never fixed the broken windows, addressed the hundreds of vacant houses or addressed the truancy issue.

“Baltimore is a great city of over 610,000 law-abiding people who respect the law and want the law to respect them,” Mikulski said. “They are ready to help do their part. They don’t want quick fixes or money thrown at them or see the effort gone as soon as the TV cameras are gone. They want relentless follow through on what needs to be done long term to fix the broken windows and bring about systemic change.”

On another issue, Lynch told lawmakers the Justice Department is reviewing a decision issued by the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals maintaining that a National Security Agency program that collects information from the phone calls made by millions of Americans is illegal.

The three-judge panel held that a provision of the Patriot Act doesn’t allow the federal government to involve itself in the bulk collection of domestic calling records. The panel said Congress must make it clear that it approves of the information-collection system if it is to proceed.

Lynch told the subcommittee that "we are reviewing that decision," but she added the collection system is a "vital tool in our national security" and indicated she does not find any privacy issues as a result of the program.

Lynch’s appearance before the committee was otherwise pro forma, involving the Justice Department’s request for $2.87 billion in discretionary resources in the 2016 budget, a 4.8 percent increase over the current budget.

But subcommittee chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) took the opportunity to criticize Obama administration initiatives, including the presidential orders essentially protecting about 4 million illegal aliens from deportation. And he chided Lynch for supporting those policies.

“I am deeply troubled by your support of the president’s unilateral executive actions, which provide amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants,” he said. “Fortunately, this sweeping policy change – undertaken without input from Congress – has been stayed by the courts while a detailed review is conducted through the lens of the law and Constitution.”

Shelby further told Lynch that “it is critical for you to return the office of attorney general to its constitutional purpose, which is to enforce the laws of the land – not the decrees and whims of this president.”

“The president has a White House Counsel and plenty of attorneys arguing for his points of view on immigration, privacy, environmental regulations, and more,” he said. “The attorney general is the servant of the laws and citizens of the United States, not the president.”