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City prosecutor considering changes in targeting police misconduct

Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein is considering overhauling how his office deals with police misconduct. He pledged to make changes during his campaign; now, he's starting to implement his ideas just as police are dealing with a corruption problem in which 17 officers were charged by federal authorities with taking kickbacks in a towing scheme.

He has already abolished the controversial "do-not-call" list that his predecessor used to keep track of officers she deemed untrustworthy to take the witness stand. Putting a cop on the list was considered a career body-blow in that a cop who can't testify can't be the primary on an arrest. It effectively rendered many on the list to desk jobs.

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And Bernstein is considering eliminating a division devoted to police misconduct. The former head of the unit told The Sun's Tricia Bishop that it was important to have a separate group of prosecutors handle cases against police because the office as a whole has to work closely with the department.

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The troubled history of the police misconduct unit:

The police misconduct unit in the Baltimore State's Attorney's Office has a colorful history, dating back to the days of Ed Norris as police commissioner. His arguments with Bernstein's predecessor, Patricia C. Jessamy, were legendary.

After charging a cop with planting drugs on an innocent man in 2001, Norris and then Mayor Martin O'Malley blew up when Jessamy declined to prosecute, citing problems with the case. Police corruption issues were then handled by the economic crimes unit.

First off, the cop who had been charged hadn't been the first person suspected of wrongdoing. Undercover detectives with internal affairs had been after someone else. They planted a bag of shaved ivory soap on a park bench and called in a drug complaint. An officer responded, picked up the bag and put it in his pocket.

But dispatchers in relaying the fake call also put out a bogus description. It fit that of a man who was breaking into a vacant house near the park. The officer who had picked up the drugs responded and helped a fellow cop arrest the burglar. The officer then charged that man with drug possession, in essence planting the "soap" on him.

But the undercover surveillance team didn't catch any of that. They photographed the officer picking up the drugs, but thought it was a different cop. After a couple of days, they realized the officer they had suspected had not done what they thought he did. They went back and ran reports for all the officer who had responded to the park and found the burglary and drug charge. They pulled the "drugs" the officer had submitted as evidence and found ivory soap.

The case appeared air-tight. But police didn't have solid evidence of the cop planting the "drugs." His lawyers argued that the man arrested in the burglary fit the fake description given out by dispatchers. The surveillance team lost half the photos they  had taken at the park. And then a disgruntled detective, upset at being suspended in a domestic violence incident, broke into a secret police corruption office and ransacked the files.

A person found most of the files, including the one dealing with the officer charged in the drug case, in a trash bin the next day. Needless to say the case was compromised, and Jessamy threw it out. That sent O'Malley into his famous tantrum, accusing her of not having the "goddamn guts to get off her ass and go in and try this case."

The chief prosecutor in the unit then called a radio station and, using a fake name, blasted Norris. The commissioner shot back: "I find it outrageous and ironic and somewhat amusing that the lead prosecutor for police misconduct and integrity disguises her identity to humiliate the Police Department."

A new unit was created to deal with police cases, led by a former attorney in the state prosecutor's office, A. Thomas Krehely. Tricia Bishop talked to him for today's story:

Now, Bernstein plans to revamp that unit as well.

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