Public distrust of city police under scrutiny

Judge tells grand jury to investigate and report

September 13, 2005|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore judge assigned the city's new grand jury yesterday to investigate "the lack of confidence that exists between many members of the public and law enforcement" - another signal of continuing distrust of police officers in courtrooms.

Sworn in yesterday, the panel of 23 grand jurors will work for four months to prepare a report suggesting ways to restore public confidence in the Police Department.

"This is not a court issue," Circuit Judge Joseph P. McCurdy, who assigned the topic to the grand jury, said in an interview. "This is something the community as a whole needs to address."

As evidence that this is a problem worthy of its attention, McCurdy told the grand jury about two recent cases in which city judges doubted the word of police officers.

In the past two weeks, two weapons violations cases have crumbled - and convicted felons who admitted carrying loaded revolvers were able to avoid five-year prison sentences - because judges believed the guns might have been discovered illegally.

The officers' stories about how they knew to search the men didn't add up, judges said in making their rulings.

McCurdy also told the grand jury that the proliferation of T-shirts displaying disdain for law enforcement, such as the ones that read: "stop snitching" and "[expletive] the police," are another indication of simmering tensions.

Lt. Frederick V. Roussey, president of the city's Fraternal Order of Police, said he welcomes the idea of a grand jury review of the topic.

"I'm all for any avenue to improve things," he said. "It's a great idea. Citizens have an interesting perspective."

With its subpoena powers, the grand jury has the ability to force people - from average city residents to Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm - to testify.

Often, the mere assignment of a particular topic to a grand jury shows concern from the bench.

In January, as State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy was passing out copies of a local homemade DVD called Stop Snitching to legislators in Annapolis, Circuit Judge W. Michel Pierson asked a grand jury to research witness intimidation. And amid media accounts of problems with prisoner health care, Circuit Judge Stuart R. Berger posed questions in May about medical services at the city jail to a grand jury.

Although many grand jury reports end up collecting dust on a shelf, Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan, a circuit judge for more than 28 years, said the projects can sometimes spur change.

"This is such an important issue that I think the report could be taken seriously," he said. "If their suggestions aren't too way-out, maybe the police will listen. There obviously is a need for the police to be close to the community."

McCurdy, a judge for almost two decades, said he remembers when potential jurors would say that they would believe an officer on the witness stand simply because they'd been taught to trust the police.

In recent years, he said, "the pendulum has gone the other way."

"More and more prospective jurors said they did not trust police officers because of some negative personal experience which they had with a particular police officer or because of a general feeling that law enforcement officers as a whole were not trustworthy," McCurdy said in a speech to the grand jurors, a written copy of which was provided to The Sun.

A fresh grand jury is selected every four months. The members meet every weekday on the second floor of the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse downtown on North Calvert Street. Aside from their grand jury assignment to research a criminal justice topic, they perform the traditional duty of deciding which criminal cases justify indictments.

In 2001, a grand jury researched a question similar to the one posed by McCurdy. Circuit Judge Audrey J.S. Carrion asked that grand jury to investigate whether there was decreased confidence in the Police Department. The grand jury report, issued shortly after its term ended in May 2001, indicated that confidence was indeed lacking.

That report singled out police brutality, police perjury and racial profiling as the main factors in the public's distrust of police.

Among the grand jury's recommendations: improve police training and professionalism, maintain a strong presence in the community and conduct a "positive spin campaign" to highlight the positive aspects of the Police Department.

McCurdy asked the new grand jury to determine whether any progress has been made since that last report and to "suggest solutions to the problems that still exist."

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