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On Her First Official Trip As Attorney General, Lynch Goes To Baltimore

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Here's what happened when America's top law enforcement official visited a city where law enforcement is under scrutiny. Loretta Lynch performed a delicate job in Baltimore.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

She's the new attorney general of the United States, and her first official trip took her to a city where police officers are accused of illegally arresting a man and causing his death.

GREENE: And in Baltimore, Attorney General Lynch had to appeal to two constituencies. One is the community at large. Another is the police who work daily with prosecutors like her. Our coverage begins with NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.

LORETTA LYNCH: Hi.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Welcome to Baltimore.

LYNCH: Thank you.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Nine eager students greeted the brand-new attorney general on the campus of the University of Baltimore. But when Loretta Lynch sat down a few minutes later for a meeting with faith leaders, the mood turned somber. Rev. Donte Hickman opened with a prayer.

DONTE HICKMAN: We ask for your divine presence and your direction and guide us through evil this season in the life of Baltimore and America. In Jesus' name, we pray.

JOHNSON: Clergy and members of Congress told the attorney general that Baltimore is suffering, and they're all searching for a way to turn that pain into something constructive. Loretta Lynch, the nation's first black woman to serve as top law enforcement officer, spent most of the day listening - listening to people like Baltimore's mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

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MAYOR STEPHANIE RAWLINGS-BLAKE: The relationship between the police and the community is like a marriage, and separation is not a option. Divorce is not an option. We have to figure out how we're going to make this marriage work.

JOHNSON: Behind closed doors, Lynch offered her condolences to the family of Freddie Gray. He's the 25-year-old man who died after a spinal injury in police custody. But the new attorney general also made a stop at a police station.

BILLINGS: Nice to meet you ma'am, Officer Billings (ph).

LYNCH: Mr. Billings, how are you?

BILLINGS: Good, ma'am.

LYNCH: Good, nice to meet you.

JOHNSON: Lynch, the former U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, sealed her national reputation as a tough prosecutor nearly 15 years ago. Back then, she went after the police who brutalized Haitian immigrant Abner Louima. But in her bid to become attorney general, Lynch won endorsements from top law enforcement groups. And here, in Baltimore's central district, she made a point to praise officers for working double shifts during the recent unrest.

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LYNCH: I have watched the police of this city, and I know that there are difficulties. I know that we have struggles, and we are here to help you work through those struggles. But to all of you who are on the front lines, I just want to say thank you.

JOHNSON: In a quiet moment, Lynch pulled aside a police official to say she realizes how hard his job is to take a city that's experienced 100 years of poverty and despair and to ask law enforcement to take care of all that on an eight-hour shift.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LYNCH: You're helping people rebuild. You're helping people clean up. You really have become the face of law enforcement. Now, some of you - you may say that's for good or for ill, I know. But we don't always choose moments. You know, sometimes they choose us.

JOHNSON: And there, Loretta Lynch could've been talking about herself. Just hours after she was sworn in last week, still basking in the warmth of her elderly father and closest friends, she was rushing to meet the president about the crisis in Baltimore's streets. A White House spokesman later said he couldn't remember a cabinet member stepping into a job at a more volatile moment. Lynch waited a few days, then made Baltimore the site of her first official trip as attorney general. University of Baltimore Law School Dean Ron Weich.

RON WEICH: I think it speaks volumes that the attorney general's first visit is to Baltimore. I think she's saying that she wants to be at the forefront of efforts to heal this community.

JOHNSON: Lynch's Justice Department already is investigating whether police broke any civil rights laws in the death of Freddie Gray. And community policing experts are reviewing the Baltimore force to offer guidance. But city council members want the Justice Department to do more - a top-to-bottom review of police practices, just like they did in Ferguson, Mo. The new attorney general made no promises. But in one of her last meetings of the day, a young activist named Tre Murphy urged her to exercise her new authority to the fullest extent. Carrie Johnson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
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