Investigate the Investigators?


An ominous cloud hangs over the city's police headquarters and courthouse. A special city grand jury has made serious charges against the police and the state's attorney, accusing them of mishandling and deliberately obstructing investigations into high-level narcotics dealing. Given the corrosive effect drugs have had on this city -- on law-abiding citizens as well as addicts -- few accusations against public officials can be as devastating.

The testimony that was the foundation for the grand jury report remains secret. Few details have been made public. State law forbids a grand jury to name people unless they are indicted. So the public is left guessing as to how much basis there is for these accusations.

The jurors were plainly responding to a blunt and highly subjective charge they received from Judge Kenneth L. Johnson when they were sworn in a year ago. He instructed them to determine why "wholesale drug dealers are not being pursued and brought to justice by the criminal justice system." Not whether, but why.

High-level drug dealers and money launderers are not being arrested and prosecuted, the grand jury agreed. It strongly suggests that favoritism toward well-connected criminals, if not outright corruption, is a major reason. Also blamed is bad management and personnel practices that hamper major investigations. Racism is attributed to the police department, headed, ironically, by a black.

It would be easy to brush aside this report. The evidence behind it remains secret. There are glaring flaws in both the report and Judge Johnson's charge. Each cites the lack of major prosecutions in state court without acknowledging the fact that such cases are almost invariably tried in federal court, even when local police started the investigations. Nor does it consider the relative resources available to federal and city agencies.

Still, the nature of the accusations and the havoc wreaked by drugs in the city require an objective assessment of the evidence unearthed by the grand jury. The answer may not be the corrupt influences suggested by jurors, but rather a mismanaged police department or one so obsessed with making large numbers of drug arrests that it neglects the quality investigations that take time and manpower.

The state's special prosecutor can determine whether there is evidence of criminal responsibility. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke should name an expert in law enforcement who has no ties to City Hall, the police department or the courthouse to advise him whether fault lies elsewhere.

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