Police no-shows in court up sharply, Jessamy says

Missed days last year doubled, she says

data are questioned

January 08, 2002|By Allison Klein and Del Quentin Wilber | Allison Klein and Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said yesterday that the number of police officers who failed to show up in court to testify as witnesses more than doubled from 2000 to last year, forcing prosecutors to drop or shelve 83 percent of those cases last year.

Police, who have a contentious relationship with the state's attorney's office, say Jessamy's statistics do not show the real picture and are so general that it is nearly impossible to determine what they mean.

According to Jessamy's data, the number of no-show officers jumped from 1,062 in 2000 to 2,182 last year. They do not specify which types of cases the officers failed to show up for, or whether they were felonies or misdemeanors.

"This has historically been a problem," said Jessamy, who is scheduled to hold a news conference on the subject today.

The city's top police official said he can't draw any conclusions from her statistics.

"Honestly, it's a just a raw number to me," Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris said. "How many were serious cases? How many were the fault of the court not notifying police. ... The number itself means little. ... How many were shooting cases? That's what I would like to know."

He also said Jessamy began tracking the data only because he asked her to do so last year. "That's the only reason this has come to anyone's attention," Norris said.

Jessamy offered no explanation of why the number doubled in one year.

Kristen Mahoney, who works for Mayor Martin O'Malley's Office on Criminal Justice, said it is because when she was hired in December 2000 to overhaul the police department's court liaison office, she pressed Jessamy's office to report all no-show officers.

"There was less of a reluctance to report it. [The numbers doubled] because they were finally being reported and tracked properly," Mahoney said. "It's a trick to say the numbers of [no-show officers] have doubled when the baseline data is not that concrete."

Last year, in Circuit and District court cases in which officers did not show, prosecutors dropped 1,322 and shelved 494. Most of the remainder were dismissed by a judge or postponed.

The total number of court cases brought by Jessamy's office is much larger.

From July 2000 through June last year, prosecutors filed nearly 66,000 cases in District Court, 33,000 of which were dropped. Circuit Court figures were not available.

Margaret Burns, a spokeswoman for the state's attorney's office, said officers are critical to criminal cases because their testimony is often the strongest evidence that prosecutors have.

"It's frustrating when the officers are a key witness and they don't show up," she said. "The numbers are troubling."

Police officials said officers fail to show up for court for a variety of reasons.

Sometimes, they are told by prosecutors not to show up or they don't receive a summons. Or they are ordered not to show up because police commanders are worrying about spiraling court overtime costs. And at times officers know they're supposed to go but don't.

An officer is fined $50 by the Police Department for the first missed court appearance. If the offense is committed more than once, the officer can be fined more or be suspended for several days.

Norris said that in nearly half of the cases investigated by police commanders, officers did not show up for court because they never received a summons or received it too late.

He called the state system of notification, in which court officials in Annapolis generate the summonses for police officers in Baltimore, the "Pony Express," and said police officials are working to build an automated system.

Jessamy proposes that police register with an electronic database within the state's attorney's office, which automatically notifies the officers via telephone when they must appear in court.

The database, called the Victim Information Notification Everyday (VINE), allows victims and witnesses, including police officers, to register for updates and changes in an offender's case status.

The VINE system, which started in Baltimore in October and has 60 names in its database, is a statewide program that is being used in areas such as Baltimore and Howard counties.

Gary McLhinney, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, said officers would not participate in the VINE system unless they were ordered to by commanders.

"Our officers are not going to live their lives based on Ms. Jessamy's scheduling," McLhinney said. "It's another example of Ms. Jessamy refusing to work with anybody. ... This is response to criticism Ms. Jessamy has received from rank-and-file police officers."

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