Greta Carter-Willis has spent a lot of time praying, crying and thinking at the threshold between the kitchen and dining room of her south-west Baltimore home.
It was at that spot nearly 11 years ago that a Baltimore city police officer, barely a year out of the academy, shot and killed her 14-year-old son Kevin Cooper.
“His body was laying right there,” she said, gesturing. “We can make little changes, paint, take the carpet up, but it still remains the same. I have to live with that mental vision in my mind all my life … This is my home, I can’t just up and move.”
It was the sense of pain and injustice around that incident that brought Carter-Willis to the Baltimore federal courthouse on Thursday, to speak in favor of the agreement negotiated between the city, its police force, and the Department of Justice in the wake of the Freddie Gray case. The future of the agreement to reform the city’s policing, known as a consent decree, was thrown into uncertainty Monday after attorney general Jeff Sessions released a memo asking to halt its implementation against the wishes of the city mayor, police commissioner and general public.
Despite a cold, driving rain, dozens of residents lined up for their three minutes to address the federal judge in the case and implore him not to delay the agreement, as the Trump administration requested earlier this week. Speakers represented faith groups, high school students, non-profits, law-enforcement and like Carter-Willis, mothers of those killed by police. And despite their disparate backgrounds, the overarching position of the city was clear: “Justice delayed is justice denied,” as more than one speaker quoted from the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr.
“It was a must that I push my way down to that courthouse and let that federal judge know, please do not hold this consent decree,” Carter-Willis told the Guardian. “It’s too late for my son, but it will help somebody else’s child and it will make it better for the next generation and it’s a right step for this department. It’s a right step for this city to have them be accountable to another agency. Because as long as they’re policing themselves, it’s not gonna get any better.”
Late Friday, a federal judge agreed with Carter-Willis and the others who trudged out to throw their weight behind the agreement, tossing out Sessions’ request for more time. Still, the saga clearly indicates that project of cultivating progressive reform in police departments nationwide no longer has an eager partner in Washington DC.
It was just a plastic dustpan
As is the case in many fatal police incidents, it was Carter-Willis herself who called 911 in 2006, hoping for some assistance as her son experienced an emotional disturbance. He had knocked over his TV during an argument, and tossed some clothes out the window. Normal teenager stuff, as Carter-Willis described it.
After a short chat with officers the situation had resolved enough that one of the responding officers left. The second, Roderick Mitter, stayed behind to finish up paperwork when tensions ratcheted back up.
“The officer walked past and Kevin was mumbling,” Carter-Willis said. “The officer asks him ‘what are you saying’ and he says ‘I’m not talking to you’ so he just kept walking.”
As Carter-Willis tells it, the officer began following the teen through different rooms, “jawing” with the teen as both grew more and more agitated. She recalls asking the officer several times to leave her home.
In the kitchen, as the rankling grew louder, Cooper picked up a plastic dustpan. “The kind you get at the 99 cent store,” Carter-Willis said.
Her version and the police version begin to diverge here. Carter-Willis says her son was merely holding the dustpan; police say he assaulted the officer with it, breaking it over his head and lunging at him with the jagged plastic.
In either case what happened next is clear. Mitter maced Kevin, deemed it ineffective, drew his gun, and fired. The bullet, which penetrated the teen’s heart, likely killed him instantly, Carter-Willis would later learn.
From there, the aftermath was predictable. Police held a press conference that day and declared the shooting justified. The officer was not charged with a crime, and has since been promoted to detective. The city offered Carter-Willis a pittance of a settlement in a civil case that her family ultimately lost to the city’s well-resourced lawyers. Years before Mike Brown and the rise of Black Lives Matter, cases like this often vanished into obscurity without attracting protests, headlines, national attention or trending hashtags.
“They just discarded him like a bag of trash, like his life meant nothing,” said Carter-Willis. “But his life did mean something. It meant something to me, to the community. He was an uncle, a neighbor, a classmate.”
Carter-Willis keeps a hatbox in her home jammed with press clippings, important documents and pictures related to her son’s case. Among them, the full DOJ’s 2016 findings on the Baltimore Police Department (BPD).
The report found broadly, a “pattern or practice” of unconstitutional conduct by city police, characterized by rank racial bias and warrantless targeting of black residents.
“When the DoJ report came out, i started crying,” Carter-Willis said. “I felt vindicated with that report because you had outside ears, you had outside eyes to understand that what [black residents] are saying is really happening.”
“They weren’t talking about Kevin,” she added, “but they were.”
In conjunction with that report the Obama DoJ, the city of Baltimore and its police department entered into negotiation for a consent decree, or a joint reform agreement enforceable by a federal judge. Similar agreements had been utilized in other problem departments like Los Angeles, New Orleans and Detroit to achieve reform after systemic use of force or discrimination issues were discovered. That agreement had already been signed by all parties before the Obama DoJ left power and was awaiting a public comment before it would, in all likelihood, have gone into effect later this year.
Enter the Trump Administration. Trump campaigned on a platform opposing virtually any scrutiny of law enforcement, and selected an attorney general in Jeff Sessions who most expected to embrace the same. Earlier this week, Sessionsmade good on that expectation, filing a memo to the Baltimore court charged with enforcing the consent decree there, asking for a 90-day pause to “review and assess” the agreement. The DoJ also asked the judge to postpone Thursday’s public hearing, a request that was denied, setting the stage for Carter-Willis and nearly 50 other Baltimoreans to weigh in before the court.
John Gore, the head of the civil rights division for the DoJ, had a lonely job Thursday. Of the dozens of speakers, he was the only person to express any interest in slowing down or potentially not following through on the agreement, citing “grave concerns”.
Those concerns were not shared by Baltimore mayor Catherine Pugh or police commissioner Kevin Davis, both of whom pledged to move ahead with the reforms with or without the DoJ. Both lamented however, that the speed of the roll-out and the public trust would both be hampered without federal involvement.
Paradoxically, Sessions was arguing that the federal government had no place in telling local law enforcement how to reform, and simultaneously, telling the officials in Baltimore that they were wrong about the path they laid out with the Obama administration in negotiating the consent decree.
Gore’s concerns were also not shared by any of the public who showed up to comment. Indeed the handful of voices who didn’t support the consent decree at the public hearing did so because they found it not strong enough.
“All this paperwork and all this stuff y’all doing is just so they can get federal money to keep on doing what they are doing,” said Marcella Hill with her voice breaking. Like Carter-Willis, Hill’s son was shot and killed by BPD. “Nothing is going to change the attitude and the personality of [the police] until someone goes to jail.”
The many fractures
On Friday, Justice James Bredar approved the agreement over the objections of the Department of Justice. “It would be extraordinary for the court to permit one side to unilaterally amend an agreement already jointly reached and signed,” the judge wrote. “Now it is time to enter the decree and thereby require all involved to get to work on repairing the many fractures so poignantly revealed by the record.”
That’s good news for advocates who want to see police reform initiatives struck in the Obama era survive the Trump administration. Many saw the DoJ’s attempt to wriggle out of the Baltimore consent decree as a trial balloon for trying to back out of older agreements that are already in place with other cities. But in what has become a minor theme of the Trump presidency, it’s possible, if not likely, that federal judge rulings like Bredar’s will stymie future attempts in place.
“Generally speaking, to modify a consent decree you have to demonstrate that circumstances have changed, so I think a lot of judges are going to be skeptical if DoJ says ‘We’ve completed this review and turns out everything is fine in these departments,’” said Christy Lopez, a former DoJ official during the Obama administration and the leader of the team that produced the department’s investigation into the Ferguson Police Department.
“It may not be that blatant or easy but what this does signal, is that when monitors come in and say ‘Hey, [the police department] is not there yet’ or ‘Hey, they need to do this to make this thing work’, DoJ is not going to have their back on that. DoJ is not going to be on the side of reform any more. And that can have a tremendous influence,” Lopez told the Guardian.
Sessions has claimed that his department remains committed to reform in Baltimore and elsewhere, but the language used in the memo explicitly questions the role of the federal government in that reform, and seems to question the premise that many of the reforms rest on that systemic discrimination is endemic to certain departments.
“The misdeeds of individual bad actors should not impugn or undermine the legitimate and honorable work that law enforcement officers and agencies perform in keeping American communities safe,” the Sessions memo from Monday reads.
“If they want to talk about actions of a few bad apples, then yes, it is clear that some police officers are more likely to use force and much more likely to commit misconduct than others,” said Sam Sinyangwe, an activist and data scientist with Campaign Zero. “Almost never are they held accountable though. We need to put in place systems and structures that can ensure accountability, and those are the types of things that these consent decrees are trying to produce, and that are now being undermined.”
As for Carter-Willis, she’s just glad judge Bredar heard her appeal and decided to move ahead. “It would restore my trust”, she paused, “somewhat … But i’m still going to be vigilant. I’m still always going to be watching. I’m still keeping an eye on them not just for my grandchildren, but for my great-grandchildren.”