Make time to talk, Mr. Bernstein

Our view: Can the prosecutor work better with police and still hold them accountable?

March 08, 2011

Baltimore City State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein campaigned for office largely on the strength of his promise to forge better working relationships between his prosecutors and the police department. That needed to happen; relations between the two had become so dysfunctional that neither could focus properly on the job of fighting crime. But now that Mr. Bernstein is in a position to make good on his pledge, his latest moves toward reconciliation have raised new causes for concern. Not only do his initiatives seem spectacularly ill-timed, but Mr. Bernstein has refused to even talk about the issues they raise. That's particularly disappointing, given his earlier promises to be more transparent and accountable than his predecessor.

At a time when the police department is reeling from a towing kickback scandal and the "friendly fire" killing of an officer, Mr. Bernstein says he is thinking about eliminating the unit tasked with prosecuting police misconduct. Moreover, he has abolished the state's attorney's office's "do not call" list for police officers considered too untrustworthy to testify at trial.

Both changes go to the heart of the prosecutor's public watchdog role, but Mr. Bernstein's initiatives seem designed to weaken rather than strengthen it. If there are good reasons for restructuring the department along the lines he envisions, he should explain them clearly and forthrightly, not dodge the issue with excuses like the one he gave The Sun's Tricia Bishop, when he begged off by saying his "schedule is a bit tight." The public needs to know the prosecutor's office is as committed to making sure officers conduct themselves properly as it is to putting criminals behind bars.

Admittedly, Mr. Bernstein may have had no warning of the two-year federal and local investigation into the corruption scandal involving towing company kickbacks before he took office. But once the indictments were issued, he should have realized there would be heightened concern over his department's ability to prosecute cases of alleged police misconduct. If he can make a case that he can perform that function better without a unit of prosecutors dedicated to the task, he needs to make that case; otherwise, the public is liable to get entirely the wrong message about the top city prosecutor's enthusiasm for holding the police accountable.

Even more puzzling is Mr. Bernstein's decision to abolish the "do not call" list of officers whom prosecutors should avoid summoning to testify at trial. In the past, there have been too many cases in which city prosecutors failed to win convictions because defense attorneys were able to persuade juries that the testimony offered by police was either unreliable or dishonest — often on the basis of the officers' previous conduct.

Does Mr. Bernstein now propose allowing those officers to testify again — and perhaps jeopardize future cases? If so, he owes the public an explanation of how that advances his focus on the violent repeat offenders who he says commit most of the city's serious crime.

Baltimore needed a better relationship between the police department and the state's attorney's office, and candidate Bernstein successfully ran for the job on that platform. But we also need a state's attorney who can strike the appropriate balance between cooperating with police to solve crimes and making sure the police conduct themselves appropriately. That may be Mr. Bernstein's view of his job as well, but he owes it to the city to explain how he intends to make it happen. Avoiding the issue on the flimsy pretext that he's "too busy" to talk won't cut it.

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