Delivering ‘harmony’ to Baltimore
Having learned the hard way through first-hand experience, when allegations of police misconduct arise, prosecutors are often seen as protective of police and unlikely to prosecute cases of wrongdoing. Despite taking an oath to administer justice equally and fairly to everyone regardless of one’s race, sex, religion, socio-economic status or occupation, exacerbating factors, such as a fear of straining the police-prosecutor relationship that other casework depends upon, can make looking the other way on police misconduct seem like the lesser of two evils.
Four months into my term and impassioned by the explicit oath that I was sworn to uphold as the chief prosecutor for Baltimore City, I broke from a longestablished protective norm in the pursuit of justice for a 25-year old black man against a few members of the Baltimore Police Department and learned hard, valuable and challenging lessons along the way.
The challenges that I was presented with throughout the course of 14 months served as a daily testament to police and prosecutors having both inherited a legacy of failed policies, laws and practices in the criminal justice system, which leaves us to ask not whether reform is needed, but rather: How it can be most fully achieved?
As the state’s attorney for Baltimore City, my office’s role is to ensure that the truth is known and justice is done when there are allegations of police misconduct the same way we ensure this with any other case. Truth and justice in the face of misconduct are most fully realized when my office is able to work with the Baltimore Police Department in a relationship of reform. Accordingly, the policy proposals that I’ve developed are designed to increase partnership between communities, prosecutors and the police. These proposals address the investigation, prosecution and administrative hearing phases of police misconduct allegations. These proposed policies can better protect good officers who are taking time away from their families, risking their lives and serving the communities they took an oath to serve.
My first proposal involves replacing the typical police investigative team with one that includes impartial investigative representation from the police department, the prosecutor’s office, state police and the Civilian Review Board. This collaborative approach will improve transparency, remove additional pressures of police investigating fellow officers and eliminate inherent bias and public skepticism during the earliest and most critical stages of the investigatory phase.
The ability to act independently and ensure a proper investigation requires not just immediate and complete access to information, sources and evidence, but it requires the power to conduct an investigation itself. My second proposal is to grant police powers to state’s attorney office investigators, much like they do in Garrett, Dorchester and Talbot counties, and other jurisdictions nationwide. Such powers include the ability to issue warrants, make arrests and carry firearms. These reforms will allow state’s attorney office investigators to participate as full partners in misconduct investigations.
My third proposal is the development of a memorandum of understanding between local prosecutors and the U.S. attorney’s office, allowing federal prosecutors to review cases of misconduct at the request of the local prosecutor following a “nocharge” decision, giving them the authority to bring charges under state law in state court by way of “cross-designation.” This approach would preserve local leadership and accountability while introducing thirdparty review in order to buttress public trust in the process.
The jury trial as an institution reflects our democratic values of representation and deliberative decision-making. The 6th Amendment does not give criminal defendants that right to a bench trial. At the federal level, if a defendant seeks to waive his/her rights for a jury trial, the court and the prosecutor must also agree to that bench trial. Hence, state law should allow prosecutors and judges to reject a defendant’s preference for a bench trial, whereby a diversely composed jury delivers a higher quality of justice in controlling bias in the courtroom, helps maintain public trust and imparts credibility on the outcome of the case, especially as it relates to police misconduct.
Lastly, House Bill 1016, passed by the General Assembly in 2016, authorizes municipalities to allow public participation on police hearing boards but does not require such participation. Rather this bill leaves local governments with loopholes and broad discretion to define the strength of public participation. Thereby, Baltimore City should pass legislation requiring the maximum number of civilians authorized — two — to be included on hearing boards with voting power. Baltimore should also avoid creating alternative hearing boards as part of a collective bargaining agreement, which could allow offending officers to sidestep a board with civilian participation. Finally, Baltimore should cap the size of the board to five members — two civilians and three sworn officers to prevent civilian input from being diluted by a large board.
The reality is that a majority of police officers are upstanding citizens who perform a vital role in our communities. By acknowledging this truth, we must also acknowledge the iniquity of failing to address the problems that have come to define many people’s perceptions of police officers. To that end, when it comes to police misconduct, our communities must know that police who break the law will be held accountable. When prosecutors are reluctant to bring charges against police officers, even in high profile and traumatizing cases of misconduct resulting in death, the communities see further evidence of a broken system.
I acknowledge that a great deal of the tension we face arises from our fidelity to the communities we feel most responsible for: the great mass of upstanding officers, the victims seeking justice, and the neighborhoods searching for peace. However, our loyalties must be to each of these interests, and our service to one must not come at the expense of the others. I look forward to forging partnerships that strike this balance, and in so doing, deliver Baltimore the harmony it deserves.