Police absences a fixable scandal

Anarchy: The court system, prosecutors and police must end epidemic no-shows by officers.

January 13, 2002

THE CITY'S top prosecutor says police officers failed to appear in court in 2,182 cases last year - two times as often as in 2001.

Wrong, wrong, wrong, cry the police.

They admit to 1,040 police no-show reports from prosecutors just between January and August, but say 47 percent of those were due to summonses that were never received or arrived late.

Either way, the consequences were disastrous.

Police data show that 961 of those cases were thrown out outright because of an officer's failure to appear. Sixty-nine others were postponed, leading to probable dismissal later. Twenty others were dismissed.

This is a scandal that has been allowed to go on for years. It has eroded the very foundation of criminal justice in Baltimore City, because most cases cannot proceed without the testimony of an officer.

Don't be confused by the conflicting claims of State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy and Commissioner Edward T. Norris. The discrepancies are a red herring. The real issue here is whether anyone has the guts to end the posturing and finger-pointing and, instead, start resolving this problem.

Besides, at this point, it's impossible to determine who is at fault here.

It's possible that officers receive summonses and simply ignore them. In a sample of 833 no-show cases last year, 40 percent of officers did just that, according to official police data.

It's possible, too, that many summonses are not sent in a timely manner from the District Court administration in Annapolis and the Circuit Court clerk's office in Baltimore. After all, notifying civilians about District Court appearances has been a repeated problem.

But it's equally possible that notifications arrive on time in batches at the police headquarters, but then are delayed or end up in dead letter boxes because officers' assignments have changed.

Taxpayers don't really care who's at fault. The important thing is to sort out this mess and make sure that all witnesses, including police officers, receive timely and accurate notices of their court obligations.

The Baltimore City Criminal Justice Coordinating Council should investigate this can of worms and mandate changes that will make the notification system work better.

Every criminal case that expires because a witness is not duly notified and fails to appear is a miscarriage of justice.

This is a scandal Baltimore cannot afford.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.