Baltimoreans' distrust of police, system deeply rooted

January 31, 2001|By Gregory Kane

SO, BALTIMORE'S state's attorney, Patricia Jessamy, thinks city jurors are a dull, unsophisticated lot with biases against police officers, does she? As one of those jurors, I take umbrage at Jessamy's charge, and at the clamoring of others calling for jury trials to be abolished.

Contrary to Jessamy's claim, Baltimore's jurors may be more savvy than our counterparts in surrounding counties. We get called for jury duty so often most of us are experts at it. I've lost count of the number of times I've been called. I've served on three juries and been kicked off another by prosecutors when I 'fessed up that I don't necessarily believe everything I read in a police report.

Which brings up that nasty matter of Baltimoreans mistrusting police. Is Jessamy's charge true? I contend that even if it is, that's a good thing, not a bad one.

Americans should mistrust government officials, because the dark past has taught us they're not always aboveboard. It's not only our right to doubt them, it's our duty. That includes police officers, judges, prosecutors, mayors, governors, legislators and presidents. Our entire Constitution, particularly the Bill of Rights, is based on the premise that you can't trust these people.

If Baltimore's police don't have the trust of Baltimore's citizens, it's because police haven't earned that trust. And let me be a little bit more of a wet blanket in Baltimore's orgy of self-congratulatory bliss about having "only" 255 homicides in the year 2000: We're never going to get that trust with Ed Norris as police commissioner.

Perhaps an anecdote will drive this point home best. A chaplain at a county private school said he and some of his white suburban students took part in a community forum one evening in East Baltimore. He was surprised, taken aback, by the hostility directed at a police representative at the meeting and the charges of increased police harassment that residents made. Neither he nor the students, he said, were quite ready for it.

But that comes as no surprise to those of us who said that Norris' style of "toss 'em" policing - stopping, frisking and questioning with no probable cause - might have short-term benefits (fewer homicides) but long-term consequences (increased mistrust of and hostility toward police).

Mayor Martin O'Malley and the City Council made their choice. They opted for a lower crime rate and more community mistrust of police. If, indeed, Baltimoreans mistrust police to such an extent that it led to the recent acquittals of Eric Stennett, accused of killing Officer Kevon M. Gavin, and David Terry, accused of fatally stabbing dental student Christian Ludwig, then those are the consequences of what the mayor and City Council have wrought.

Another anecdote: Four years ago, a Baltimore police officer stopped me and issued me a citation for running a stop sign I didn't run. When I went to court, the officer who was going to testify against me was not the officer who stopped me. Several other defendants complained of the same thing. One guy even said the white male officer testifying against him wasn't the officer who stopped him.

"Your honor, it was a black female officer who stopped me," he told the judge, who condescendingly and paternalistically blew him off.

Here's the problem: When an officer other than the one who stopped a person accused of a traffic offense stands in a court and says: "On such and such a date, I stopped this person committing this offense," that's called perjury. It's lying under oath. Most galling of all, it's unnecessary lying. City cops were lying about something they didn't even have to lie about. Ordinary folks who watch this scenario in District Court and then serve as jurors in Circuit Court won't believe that cops - now testifying at the higher court level - are going to suddenly tell the truth.

In all fairness to Norris, this foolishness went on before he came to Baltimore. For all we know, he might even have arrested it. But he didn't make matters better by introducing the practice of tossing to Baltimore. He may have made them worse.

So when lawyers for Terry argued that police arrested him not because of the evidence but because of media pressure, it might have resonated with some Baltimoreans. Of course, if that was a factor in the jury's deliberations, then the jury was completely wrong. Comments by either prosecutors or defense attorneys in opening statements and closing arguments aren't evidence and have no place in the deliberations.

But we'd be fooling ourselves if we believe some juries don't engage in the practice. Jurors in one case I served on tried it until I and other jurors reminded them it wasn't proper.

That may be behind Jessamy's wish to educate jurors about the legal system. It sounds as if she might be privy to what went on in the jury rooms in the Stennett and Terry cases. If she is, she should tell us how she came by that information.

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