Baltimore's top prosecutor considering changes to police-misconduct procedures

Bernstein abolishes controversial list of untrustworthy officers

March 07, 2011|By Tricia Bishop, The Baltimore Sun

As the Baltimore Police Department faces one of the largest corruption scandals in its history, the city's new state's attorney is revamping the way prosecutors deal with police wrongdoing as part of a comprehensive office overhaul.

Gregg Bernstein, who took office in January, is considering eliminating a decade-old division that is devoted to police misconduct cases. And he has abolished a controversial list kept by his predecessor that banned certain officers from testifying at trial.

Such moves appear contrary to national trends "in larger jurisdictions" like Baltimore, according to Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, based in Alexandria, Va. Most cities have a separate prosecutor's unit to investigate criminal allegations against police, he said, and everyone keeps tabs on officers who might have credibility issues.

"Whether by formal policy or by common sense, you try to make sure that person isn't the lead investigator on every case," Burns said.

While Bernstein is still choosing his final moves, law enforcement analysts said they are likely to be geared toward preserving positive relations with police.

Bernstein campaigned for the top prosecutor position on a platform of better relations with law enforcement, which roundly endorsed him after years of butting heads with former Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy, who wasn't shy about criticizing the department.

"The Police Department isn't the enemy" of the prosecutor's office, said Christopher Dreisbach, an assistant professor within the Division of Public Safety Leadership at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Education. "There's a kind of loss of confidence in the whole law enforcement structure of the city if the two main players are feuding with each other."

Events during Bernstein's first few weeks on the job have underscored the need for the watchdog role, however.

In January, four officers were involved in the fatal shooting of a colleague outside a city club. Last month, 17 officers were indicted on federal charges in connection with a towing company extortion scheme, and 14 others were suspended from work. And last week, The Daily Record newspaper reported that payouts in police misconduct civil suits have already cost Baltimore more than $800,000 this year.

"The investigation of allegations of police misconduct is a significant priority of our office," Bernstein said in an e-mailed statement.

He declined to be interviewed, saying in the 500-word message sent a week ago that his "schedule is a bit tight" and he was not "able to meet … or talk on the phone" about the issues or the specific factors he's taking into account in setting police misconduct policies.

History and conversations with several other prosecutors, including state's attorneys in Baltimore and Prince George's counties, reveal a range of considerations in handling such cases, based on the region.

"It just depends on how big," the region is, Burns said.

Most misconduct investigations start inside the Police Department, which is then supposed to bring cases to prosecutors if the alleged conduct could be criminal.

Smaller jurisdictions with populations under 10,000, which make up about 80 percent of the country's prosecutor offices, often refer the cases to be handled out of town, Burns said. But the larger areas — Seattle, Miami, New York, Houston — handle them on their own, often under a separate unit within the prosecutor's office.

Baltimore has had its Police Misconduct Unit for 10 years, though what it will look like in the future is undecided. Its chief, Douglas Ludwig, retired in January, and a senior prosecutor has been filling in ever since.

"[W]e have been actively reviewing the operation of the Police Misconduct Unit almost from the first day I took office," Bernstein said in the statement, noting that decisions about the scope and structure of such a division going forward "will be made within the overall context of the decisions we make as to the organizational structure of the office as a whole."

As part of the review, Baltimore has studied the operations of offices in other cities and worked with police "to establish lines of communication and information-sharing regarding specific allegations of misconduct," he said.

Before Baltimore had the misconduct unit, prosecuting corrupt city police was handled by the chief of the economic crimes division, Elizabeth A. Ritter, within the state's attorney's office.

But, in January 2001, evidence disappeared in a case against an officer accused of perjury and misconduct, leading Jessamy to drop criminal charges against him. That prompted then-Mayor Martin O'Malley to blast her as not having "goddamn guts to get off her ass and go in and try this case."

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