State prosecutors in Montgomery and Howard counties will swap cases of police-involved deaths, a move intended to build public trust in the independence and fairness of the investigations.
The partnership between the counties, announced Monday, comes at a time when citizens "overwhelmingly" distrust the criminal justice system, Montgomery County State's Attorney John J. McCarthy said.
The idea for the agreement preceded the death of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old man who suffered a severed spinal cord and other injuries while in Baltimore police custody in April. Gray's death set off more than a week of protests that erupted into riots, prompting a curfew and deployment by the National Guard.
Marilyn J. Mosby, Baltimore's top prosecutor, shocked many by charging all six officers involved in Gray's arrest with offenses ranging from second-degree murder to reckless endangerment.
State's attorneys work regularly with police to investigate and prosecute crime, which leads to a perception that prosecutors favor officers, McCarthy said. He added that Montgomery and Howard counties haven't fielded such complaints.
"There are a large number of individuals that feel that it's not going to be looked at fairly," McCarthy said. "We have an obligation toward changing that perception."
The counties each reported two police-involved deaths last year, McCarthy said. Montgomery County has about 1,200 officers on its police force; Howard has 500.
In such cases — one of which has been sent already to Howard County for review — the other county would send a prosecutor to investigate, and all court proceedings, including any trial, would take place in the original jurisdiction, he said.
The idea is supported by the findings of a task force appointed by President Barack Obama, which last month recommended that police departments mandate external investigations into fatal use-of-force incidents and deaths of police prisoners. The 21st-Century Policing Task Force also recommended independent prosecutors review the cases.
The second proposal has drawn criticism from those who say prosecutors are best suited to conduct investigations in their own jurisdictions. Some worry that bringing prosecutors into districts where they weren't elected to try cases would decrease accountability.
McCarthy, who hopes to see more counties in Maryland enter into similar agreements, said he "wouldn't second-guess" those who don't agree with the philosophy behind it.
"They ultimately will be held responsible to voters in their jurisdiction," he said. "We think this is an important step."
Howard County State's Attorney Dario Broccolino said appointing independent prosecutors is "the very least we can do" to address residents' concerns.
"We're sensitive to the fact that some members of the community do not think these things are properly investigated," he said. "We've always looked at these cases very critically and followed where the evidence takes us, but the perception is reality in a lot of people's eyes."
McCarthy and Broccolino said the agreement had little to do with the Gray case in Baltimore, but they also cited the widespread unrest over police brutality cases nationwide.
"The question goes beyond any individual case or individual prosecutors," McCarthy said. "This is about a public discourse about a topic that is at the forefront across America. Everyone's goal should be taking steps that ensure public confidence and trust in what we are doing."