A new start for police after Jessamy?

Some breathing room for cops, but now they have to prove they're right

September 21, 2010|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

A big sigh of relief emanated from the Baltimore Police Department's headquarters on East Fayette Street this week.

After 15 years, to hear the cops tell it, their suffering has ended. State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy is out and Gregg Bernstein is in.

Baltimore's electorate put an end to the relentless backbiting, feuding and name-calling between the top prosecutor and a succession of six police commissioners over whom to blame for botched cases and repeat offenders.

Inept police or a timid state's attorney?

Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III publicly supported Bernstein by putting a campaign sign in the front yard of his house, prompting controversy but also pumping publicity into the challenger's fight.

"The commissioner backed the right horse," said Christopher Dreisbach, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University who teaches law enforcement ethics as part of a police leadership program.

The political rumblings were that Bealefeld would quit, or would have to quit, if Bernstein hadn't won the Democratic primary (he faces no challenger in November's general election).

"I certainly wouldn't have blamed him for resigning," Dreisbach said. "It would've been a messy, messy relationship had Jessamy won and Bealefeld stayed. It would have been silly for Bealefeld not to resign had Jessamy won."

Clearly, Bealefeld has been frustrated with Jessamy's office, as were his predecessors. But now the commissioner has what past chiefs have not — a clean start with a new state's attorney whose philosophy on prosecuting criminals is closer to his own.

Time will tell whether this new relationship will translate into violent criminals spending more years in prison, or even going to prison at all, and whether the new prosecutor will take more chances on cases that Jessamy passed on or pleaded down, citing ineffectual or incomplete police work.

There is also a danger that Bernstein has raised impossible expectations.

But while there is necessary tension between the two law enforcement offices, and there will be differences on how to proceed with individual cases, having the prosecutor and police chief pushing the same or similar strategies should give the public a cohesive crime-fighting plan.

Too often in the past, Jessamy and whoever sat in the commissioner's chair disagreed over how to police the city, and instead of trying to work together, both sides bashed each other in public. They disagreed on what quantity of drugs constituted a felony charge, or whether detectives could charge someone with murder based on a single witness, just to name a couple of points of contention.

"I think he was just frustrated, as we all were," said former Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris, who had running public arguments with Jessamy and her staff. "He had to know that putting up the sign would be controversial and get him into trouble, but I'm glad he did it. It's detrimental to say you're getting along fine when in fact you're not."

Norris said city police "suffered silently as Jessamy's office leaked negative stories to the press for 10 years." He cited one example in which he said prosecutors told reporters cops had botched a case by trampling on evidence when officers had stepped on shell casings during a running gunbattle.

Jessamy's attorney and longtime political strategist, Larry S. Gibson, said it's time to stop rehashing the campaign and move forward. "The election is over," he said, adding that he thinks "the public is realistic" in understanding that campaign rhetoric is just that, rhetoric.

Expectations, Gibson said, are a creation of the media, and if the public held each elected official to every word they uttered as a candidate, not a single incumbent would ever serve a second term in office.

What the public wants to see is a safer city with less crime. They've given a new guy a chance to prove himself. But they've also given Police Commissioner Bealefeld a new hope.

Dreisbach said he is eager "to see how well the two work together. "If Bernstein is true to his word, we'll see a happy relationship between the police and the state's attorney, and time won't be wasted finger-pointing. I think it means there will be more successful prosecutions flowing up from police work. "

peter.hermann@baltsun.com

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