Beyond rhetoric: police and prosecutors in harmony

Two sides need to share vision

September 25, 2010|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

Back in 1999, then-Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke wanted to publish the names and photographs of every man convicted of soliciting a prostitute in order to shame them into staying away from the city. He proposed taking out a full-page newspaper ad.

But his plan went awry when he learned that just two men in six months had been found guilty of the crime.

The response was predictable.

His spokesman blamed State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy: "These cases should be taken the rest of the way and prosecuted."

A prosecutor in her office blamed the police: "Before the mayor makes a big announcement, maybe he should check with his Police Department as to what enforcement plans they have."

It was another minor and long-forgotten skirmish in what has been a years-long war between Jessamy and most if not all of the six police commissioners who ran the department during her 15-year tenure as Baltimore's elected top prosecutor.

The rhetoric and the name-calling is all too familiar, and it's easy to regurgitate fiery comments during the heat of a contentious campaign, as in the race for state's attorney that ended this month with Jessamy losing to Gregg Bernstein in a close primary election.

But behind the rhetoric has been a real debate over how to fight crime in Baltimore. And while readers and the public are by now likely sick and tired of hearing about Jessamy-Bernstein, the above example from three mayors ago is a good illustration of how city residents suffer from the bickering.

And, sorry, it's not the bickering that causes the suffering, as a colleague has repeatedly and rightly pointed out to me. The bickering is the result of what has been a fundamental difference in how Jessamy and various top officers and mayors have wanted to police and protect the city.

Jessamy's office did not feel that jailing prostitutes and their customers, or even low-level drug users, would solve any problem. Her prosecutors viewed with distrust and disdain police officers who rounded up johns, loiterers and addicts on what they believed to be unlawful charges based on questionable tactics.

Police officers shot back that law-abiding residents expected them to round up those very same people to keep their neighborhoods safe. And police expressed frustration when the man arrested for urinating on a sidewalk on Tuesday morning was back on the sidewalk Tuesday night.

In 2000, Baltimore police detectives posed as drug dealers to round up addicts, but only a handful of more than 300 people arrested over a three-month period saw any jail time. Prosecutors dropped charges against most of them, saying police had failed to build credible cases.

"I'm not going to stop doing the stings," shouted Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris.

"They should be doing it in a way we can get convictions," Jessamy shouted back.

The wholesale arrest of addicts has always been a questionable practice, and more than one top cop and mayor have emphasized targeting violent offenders with guns over heroin abusers. And more than one top cop has admitted that "we can't arrest our way out of the drug problem."

But still, let's say the police, as in this example, find it necessary to cleanse a neighborhood, win applause from residents and send a message to the users. This would be a perfect time for a police lieutenant to grab an assistant state's attorney and say: "How can we do this so it has meaning?"

Police arresting 300 people, prosecutors throwing them back on the streets — then both screaming at the other over the failed endeavor — does nothing to help the community, raises questions about police conduct and leads everyone to believe that no one has any clue about how to solve the problem.

The city's top prosecutor should stand up when police do wrong, as Jessamy did when police launched their zero-tolerance campaign in the mid-2000s and made 105,000 arrests in a single year.

Prosecutors declined to prosecute thousands of defendants, but police kept up the arrest pace anyway, knowing the defendants were punished simply by spending 24 or more hours going through the booking process, even if they were released without being charged.

Police called it "abated by arrest," forgetting that arrests should be abated by the criminal justice system, and not simply because the jails are too full to process detainees efficiently. The practice has ended. In fact, the current police commissioner boasts that he's lowered the crime rate while cutting the number of arrests by nearly 30,000 a year.

Still, zero-tolerance cost the city more than $750,000 to settle a civil suit filed by people caught up in the sweep and has now brought unwanted independent oversight to the department. Lawmakers in Annapolis passed provisions to ensure that people arrested but not charged automatically have their names purged from public records.

There are other times when police thought Jessamy overstepped.

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