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By Mark Puente, The Baltimore Sun (TNS)

In the wake of Freddie Gray’s death in police custody, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced Friday that the Department of Justice will launch a full-scale civil rights investigation into Baltimore’s police.

“This investigation will begin immediately,” Lynch said, adding that investigators will examine whether police violated the constitutional rights of residents.

The decision comes after local officials and community leaders pressed the Justice Department to launch an inquiry similar to investigations into police departments in Ferguson, Mo., and Cleveland that examined whether officers engaged in patterns of excessive force. In both of those cities, unrest erupted after unarmed black people were killed by police.

“Our goal is to work with the community, public officials, and law enforcement alike to create a stronger, better Baltimore,” Lynch said. “The Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division has conducted dozens of these pattern or practice investigations, and we have seen from our work in jurisdictions across the country that communities that have gone through this process are experiencing improved policing practices and increased trust between the police and the community.”

Lynch visited Baltimore on Tuesday and met the family of Gray, the man who died April 19 of a severed spine and other injuries sustained while in police custody. She also met privately with Baltimore’s mayor and police commissioner as part of a five-hour trip.

The announcement comes seven months after a Baltimore Sun investigation found that the city had paid nearly $6 million since 2011 in court judgments and settlements in lawsuits alleging brutality and other misconduct. The Sun also found that dozens of black residents received battered faces and broken bones during questionable arrests. In nearly all of the cases, prosecutors or judges dismissed the charges against the suspects.

While in Baltimore, Lynch said the Justice Department might need to go beyond the voluntary, collaborative review of use of force by city police that began in October. That review was announced five days after The Sun published its first of two stories into police abuses.

On Friday, Lynch said the collaborative review will not be enough to bring the community and police force together.

She said the collaborative review started by the Justice Department in the fall will continue as technical assistance to help the department. No report of those findings will be released as it will be folded into the civil rights investigation, she added.

The tougher civil rights probes examine whether police departments have a history of discrimination or using force beyond standard guidelines, and can lead to years of court monitoring.

In such investigations, Justice Department officials gather information from community members, interview officers and other local authorities, and observe officers’ work and review documents. But they do not assess individual cases for potential criminal violations.

The Justice Department said the new probe is separate from the agency’s criminal civil rights investigation into Gray’s death.

The federal agency’s civil rights division has launched such broad probes into 20 police departments in the past six years. They examine excessive force, discriminatory harassment, false arrests and unlawful stops, searches or arrests.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski were among those urging Lynch to launch an investigation. Other Democratic lawmakers from Maryland sent a letter to Lynch this week expressing support for a review.

After Lynch’s announcement Friday, Rawlings-Blake issued a statement saying she was “pleased the Department of Justice has agreed to my request.”

“Our city is making progress in repairing the fractured relationship between police and community, but bolder reforms are needed and we will not shy away from taking on these challenges,” Rawlings-Blake said. “The problems we are confronting in Baltimore are not unique to our city. They did not occur overnight and it will take time for Baltimore to heal and move forward.”

Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, clergy and other activists had called for a civil rights probe since October. But Rawlings-Blake and police union leaders dismissed the requests until Wednesday.

Young called the announcement of the federal probe “a watershed moment” for Baltimore.

(c)2015 The Baltimore Sun, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Ted Van Pelt via Flickr

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