Worst-case scenario

March 17, 2003

THE ANGRY AND anguished criticism of a U.S. District Court judge has sharpened the focus on an appalling lack of professionalism in the Baltimore Police Department.

Judge Andre M. Davis says sloppy investigations are dooming important cases, undermining confidence in law enforcement and endangering city residents.

The denunciation came last week as Judge Davis was granting a defense motion to suppress evidence seized in the case of a 29-year-old defendant who, police said, had $200,000 worth of heroin. An affidavit used to obtain a warrant in the case was riddled with "knowing lies," the judge said.

Though troubling, his critique arrives at an opportune moment. Baltimore has a new police commissioner, Kevin P. Clark, and a commitment from U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio to implement a strict new federal gun crimes program, Project Exile. That program will not be effective if Mr. DiBiagio's prosecutors don't get better cases.

Clearly, more police training is needed - or police officers need relief from pressure to take cases to court, ready or not. Judge Davis' findings suggest many Baltimore police officers have less understanding of search-and-seizure law than viewers of NYPD Blue.

So it's heartening to learn that 250 officers were in a room at headquarters within days after the judge's remarks were published in The Sun to hear a lecture on this critically important law. Commissioner Clark seems prepared to demand adherence to procedures that result not just in arrests but in convictions.

The judge's observations should end the tedious wrangle between the police and Mayor Martin O'Malley on one side and city State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy. The two sides have routinely blamed each other for lost cases.

Ms. Jessamy won concessions recently in her effort to gain charging authority over serious cases. Her argument: If prosecutors can review cases, they can improve them - or refuse to file charges when necessary. Clearly, this system needs quality control.

She and Commissioner Clark negotiated the agreement. To his great credit, he appears impatient with turf battles. "It's not about whose system is best, it's about cooperation," he said recently.

For their agreement to mean anything significant, Ms. Jessamy says, she must have money to hire more prosecutors to handle the charging function and a caseload that has doubled in recent years. Budgets are tight all over, including at City Hall, but Mayor O'Malley must find a way to comply.

Death and violent disruption of city neighborhoods won't end until the price of engaging in the illegal drug trade gets higher. Law enforcement has to be at least as organized as the criminals.

It begins with professional police work.

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