The U.S. Justice Department will investigate possible civil rights violations by the Baltimore Police Department following the death of a black man while under police custody, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced Friday.
The investigation will look for unconstitutional policing practices within the city, such as patterns of excessive force or improper stops and searches.
“Our goal is to work with the community, public officials, and law enforcement alike to create a stronger, better Baltimore,” said Lynch. "Ultimately, this process is meant to ensure that officers are being provided with the tools they need – including training, policy guidance and equipment – to be more effective, to partner with civilians, and to strengthen public safety.”
“In the coming days, Civil Rights Division attorneys and investigators conducting the investigation, and the police experts who will assist them, will be engaging with community members and law enforcement,” she added.
Lynch said if unconstitutional policies or practices are found, the Department of Justice will seek a court-enforceable agreement to address those issues.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake requested the federal probe into her city's police department following the April death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who died of a neck injury while in the back of a police van.
Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced criminal charges - including one murder charge - against six officers involved in the case last week.
Lawyers for the police officers are calling for the prosecutor to remove herself. They listed five potential conflicts of interests as reasons why Mosby should step down, including the argument that a lawyer for Gray's family is a close personal friend of Mosby.
The other reasons are that Mosby and her husband, Baltimore City Council member Nick Mosby, stand to gain financially and politically from the case; that Marilyn Mosby has relationships with potential witnesses; that her office is playing a role investigating the case; and that there is a pending civil lawsuit against her office.
The death of Freddie Gray is the latest instance in which black men died by police actions. The cases have worsened racial tensions in the U.S. and raised renewed concerns about excessive force and racial discrimination by police.
A similar federal investigation into last year's fatal police shooting of an unarmed, 18-year-old black man found a pattern of civil rights violations by the Ferguson Police Department in the state of Missouri.
The Department of Justice also announced late last year there was reasonable cause to believe the Cleveland Division of Police in Ohio engaged in a pattern or practice of the use of excessive force.
During her congressional testimony, Lynch said such situations involve a core responsibility of the Department of Justice. She said it is not only the role of the department to combat illegal conduct when it occurs, but to help prevent the circumstances that give rise to it in the first place.
The attorney general added that although Baltimore has made "significant strides,” more may need to be done. “I assure you senators that I am listening to all voices,” she said.
Lynch said a federal training initiative called Collaborative Reform, which can be used to improve police procedures involving the use of force, began last year in Baltimore at the request of the Baltimore Police Department. "It’s important to note I think that Collaborative Reform has been a very successful tool throughout the country,” Lynch said.
She also said there has been a lot of engagement since then between the police and the Baltimore community on ways to improve the city's police department.
U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland suggested the Department of Justice consider mandating training on ethnic and racial bias, and the use of force before federal funds are made available to local law enforcement.