Distasteful but necessary

March 31, 1993

It is not pleasant having law enforcement officials investigated by other law enforcement officials. But the alternative is worse: perhaps ignoring misconduct in office.

State prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli, looking into allegations against Baltimore police or the city state's attorney's office made by a grand jury that studied narcotics investigations, may not find anything worth pursuing. But if he does file charges, it could prove devastating, especially in a city that already is fighting an uphill battle against the social cancer of drugs and the street wars it unleashes on many of its neighborhoods.

Since the grand jury report was published only in an expurgated form, virtually all of the evidence on which it is based is secret. Some of the testimony the jurors heard is doubtless the griping of disgruntled investigators. Other testimony, however, is believed to have come from police officers with excellent records, who may be disgruntled for good reason. Only the state prosecutor, with his access to all of the evidence and his ability to subpoena records and bring witnesses before a grand jury of his own, can sort this out.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and States Attorney Stuart O. Simms have criticized the grand jury report, prepared without the usual aid from Mr. Simms' staff, as shallow and amateurish. In some respects their criticism is accurate. It is also irrelevant. Amateurish or not, the grand jury has raised issues which go to the heart of law enforcement: suppression of evidence, deliberate failure to target major drug kingpins, misuse of federal funds and of experienced investigators. They should not be lightly brushed aside. The only proper response by a law enforcement officer to an amateurish complaint is to have it investigated by professionals.

There is another aspect to the grand jury report that, unfortunately, is being ignored at City Hall. The jury alleges that the police department devotes its anti-narcotics energy to low-level street dealers, neglecting the much more difficult but ultimately more rewarding investigations of the ringleaders. There is evidence that seems to support this charge. A study by the U.S. Department of Justice found that the Baltimore police made proportionately more narcotics arrests in 1989 than any city except Atlanta. But they were overwhelmingly minor arrests. Nearly two-thirds of the cases never even went to trial, and fewer than 1,000 of more than 17,000 persons arrested went to jail.

There may not be any corrupt intent in this skewed attack on narcotics. In some ways it is a political response to complaints from citizens who want their streets freed of drug-peddlers. But it deserves a hard look from a competent expert. Mayor Schmoke has an obligation to see that this city's police resources are not being squandered.

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