Holding police to account
Our view: Regardless of whether they would have changed the outcomes in the Gray cases, Mosby’s police accountability proposals warrant consideration
When Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced she would drop all remaining charges against the officers involved in Freddie Gray’s arrest, she mounted a blistering attack on the Police Department, accusing it of all but actively sabotaging her effort to bring them to account. Consequently, critics are likely to view her recent proposals for changing the way alleged police misconduct is investigated as an attempt to excuse her own failings and cover up for what they allege was a politically motivated prosecution.
We don’t buy Ms. Mosby’s explanation for the acquittals in the Gray cases. All indications are that the Baltimore Police Department as a whole took seriously its duty to investigate Gray’s death, and the subsequent conviction of an officer who shot an unarmed man — a case that turned on the testimony for the prosecution of his fellow officers — shows the BPD can investigate its own. But we don’t subscribe to the cynical view of her proposed reforms either. On the contrary, we are glad to see the outrage she expressed on the day she dropped charges transformed into a set of concrete recommendations to strengthen police accountability and address the potential conflicts of interest faced by prosecutors in these cases. We don’t necessarily agree with them all, but they are all worth discussing.
One proposal calls for the BPD’s internal affairs unit that investigates use-of-force incidents by officers to be replaced by an interagency team of investigators drawn from the department, the prosecutor’s office, the Maryland State Police and the city’s Civilian Review Board. In a recent Sun op-ed, Ms. Mosby argued that a collaborative approach not only would improve transparency but reduce the potential for conflicts of interest and bias that are inherent in police investigating fellow officers, especially in the early stages of an investigation. It would also leave the public less skeptical about the outcome of such cases. That may not be necessary in all cases, but it could be useful in some — the fact that the Police Department has brought in outside investigators from Montgomery and Howard counties to handle the internal disciplinary cases involving the Freddie Gray officers is itself acknowledgment that outside eyes can be useful.
We are skeptical about her proposal to grant full police powers to investigators from the state’s attorney office, which would allow them to issue warrants, make arrests, carry firearms and engage as equal participants in misconduct investigations. The idea appears to stem from the parallel investigation she says she conducted into Gray’s death but which appears — at least based on the evidence her deputies presented in court — not to have turned up much if anything in addition to what police found. The need for this second proposal would seem to be obviated by the first.
A third idea calls for “the cross designation” of federal Last week, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced several proposed police accountability reforms. prosecutors as potential partners in bringing charges against police officers in state courts, an effort to avoid potential conflicts in cases where a state’s attorney, who must work with city police every day, might be reluctant to bring charges. It’s worth exploring whether that’s the right approach or whether handing cases to prosecutors in neighboring jurisdictions or to the state prosecutor would be more effective.
We disagree with her proposal to give prosecutors and judges veto power over a defendant’s request for a bench trial rather than a jury trial. The decision of whether to exercise the constitutional right to be judged by a jury of one’s peers should rest solely in the hands of the defendant. But we endorse wholeheartedly her call to require civilian participation on police trial boards. Legislation the General Assembly passed this year authorizes the inclusion of civilians but leaves the decision up to local jurisdictions — and allows it to be subject of collective bargaining. It’s too important for that. We also like Ms. Mosby’s idea to limit the overall size of trial boards to prevent civilian voices from being drowned out.
Critics may look at Ms. Mosby’s demand for these reforms as being like an athlete blaming the referees for her loss. But the reason to consider Ms. Mosby’s proposals is not whether any of them would have changed the outcome in the Gray trials. It’s that the public is now uniquely focused on the issue of police accountability — not just because of Gray’s death but because of the Justice Department’s findings in its investigation of the Baltimore Police Department and the broader Black Lives Matter movement. We applaud her willingness to lead that discussion and look forward to a robust debate in the General Assembly.