Making it stick

October 06, 2002

MURDER ISN'T the only thing it's easy to get away with in Baltimore.

Gun possession and shooting charges are a breeze to beat, too, largely thanks to many of the same problems a recent Sun series detailed in city homicide cases. Police too often fail to collect enough evidence. Sometimes they compromise, lose or destroy evidence. Other times they simply fail to follow up on investigations.

So charges get dismissed by judges or dropped by prosecutors. Offenders -- many of whom are not murderers only because their bullets missed the mark or didn't do enough damage -- escape punishment.

Alone, the problems with gun cases demonstrate a critical lapse in a city that each year records an average of more than one shooting per day. But taken together with the problems revealed in the Police Department's homicide unit, the gun case foul-ups are even worse.

They suggest systemic shortcomings in officers' investigative skills, in their knowledge of the law and in their ability to work with prosecutors to build solid cases. They indicate that long-standing problems in the Police Department continue -- and they help make justice elusive in the city.

Where crime is concerned, police have two responsibilities: to make an arrest and to make it stick. Too often in Baltimore, officers are fulfilling the first responsibility but not the second.

Records from State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy's office show that nearly a third of the cases handled by an elite gun unit in the first five months of this year collapsed when they got to the city's gun court solely because of problems with police investigations.

In March, a particularly bad month, 20 of the 51 cases that were handled in gun court were halted because officers collected insufficient evidence, made improper identifications of defendants, conducted illegal searches, failed to connect a gun with a defendant or -- incredibly -- resigned and did not leave sufficient evidence for another officer to continue with the case. Were any of those 20 defendants guilty? We'll never know.

Perhaps even more stunning is just how flimsy some of the cases are. Notes made by prosecutors about shooting cases they declined to even take to court reveal that officers many times make arrests based on the testimony of one witness, and nothing else. Sometimes, they make arrests based solely on the testimony of people who were not eyewitnesses at all.

According to prosecutors' notes, officers sometimes attribute their largely unsupported arrests to pressure from their superiors to keep arrest numbers high, because those statistics -- and not convictions -- are how officers' effectiveness is judged. These weak cases unnecessarily occupy prosecutors' time and, more important, fail to bring perpetrators in extremely violent crimes to justice.

Of course, police errors are not the lone cause of failed gun or shooting prosecutions. The rate of successful convictions by the state's attorney's gun unit is down from 63 percent in 2000 to just over 50 percent because of missteps throughout the criminal justice system.

There are other mitigating factors at work, too. Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris said earlier this year that he was encouraging officers to move quickly against violent offenders to prevent them from victimizing more people. Sometimes that means making an arrest with less evidence than you would need at trial.

But the number of cases crumbling -- dozens in the first five months of this year -- because of investigative shortcomings suggests not enough officers are following up weak arrests with the evidence-gathering needed to win convictions.

It's hard enough to win convictions in Baltimore, given the prevalence of reluctant witnesses, jurors who won't convict even the obviously guilty and victims who want nothing to do with the criminal justice system. Police gaffes are an inexcusable aggravation.

Solutions to this problem aren't much different from the ones suggested to create better homicide cases: moving charging authority from police to prosecutors, improving training for officers, and increasing cooperation between the Police Department and the state's attorney's office. One prosecutor said an additional snag was caused by the dissolution of a centralized police unit to deal with shootings.

Most important, though, is recognition of the apparently widespread need for change in the Police Department. Officers' work should be helping to put criminals in jail -- not keeping them free.

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