New ethics unit set

Jessamy, O'Malley agree on prosecution of police misconduct

Five-person division

City will fund effort

state will provide one lawyer

March 28, 2001|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Settling a nasty fight with city police and the mayor, Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy signed off yesterday on the creation of a unit to prosecute police misconduct.

The new five-member unit, the Police Misconduct/Ethics Division, will be put in place within the next few weeks. Calls for its formation arose this winter during a dispute between Jessamy and Mayor Martin O'Malley and Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris over Jessamy's decision to drop corruption charges against an officer accused of planting drugs on an innocent man.

"This is a positive step in the right direction," O'Malley said at a news conference in City Hall. "Fundamental to the ability [of] any police department to reduce violent crime is that we maintain the trust ... between the police department and the neighbors."

He was flanked by Jessamy, Deputy Police Commissioner Barry W. Powell and Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., all of whom signed the memorandum of understanding forming the unit.

Previously, misconduct cases were handled by the economic crimes division of the state's attorney's office.

"We hope that within a few weeks we can have this unit up and running and give the citizens of Baltimore City integrity in police investigations," Jessamy said.

Last year, Jessamy said, her office reviewed 50 allegations of police misconduct, but not all were prosecuted. Since 1995, her office has indicted 17 police officers, she said.

"I think the integrity of this force is very, very high," O'Malley said. "But there is no force, as long as it is comprised of human beings, that is ever going to be perfect."

Jessamy said she has chosen a person to run the new unit. She would not divulge his name, saying that she had not officially offered him the position. He does not currently work in her office.

Jessamy initially proposed a new unit because of "strained" relations with police over the dismissal of charges against Officer Brian L. Sewell. But over the past few weeks, police and city officials have privately complained that she has dragged her feet on formalizing the unit. Jessamy has said she was working on details of the agreement.

Elizabeth A. Ritter, a veteran prosecutor who for years has handled police misconduct cases, will not be assigned to the new unit. City and police officials agreed to fund the new unit only if Ritter was not a part of it, sources have said.

Norris called for Ritter to be removed from police misconduct cases in February after she called a local radio show under a pseudonym to attack his agency.

Jessamy, who has defended and praised Ritter, told the City Council last month that Ritter "needed a break" and would not head the new unit.

The unit will be funded with $167,000 in city money. Two lawyers, one of whom will be provided by the state attorney general's office, and an administrative assistant will staff the unit. A retired police detective will be hired as a civilian investigator.

A police officer from the department's Internal Affairs Division will serve as a liaison to the unit. The Police Department has decided to assign police misconduct complaints to an elite group within IAD, police said.

Norris has pledged to root out police corruption since coming to Baltimore. "This is part of the restructuring of the Baltimore Police Department. This is his view of the future," said Powell.

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