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Crime

Local prosecutors have not charged officers in any of the police-involved death investigations completed by Maryland attorney general’s office

Local prosecutors have not charged officers in any of the police-involved fatalities that the Maryland attorney general’s office has completed investigations for, according to an inaugural yearly report released Tuesday by the office’s unit that probes police killings statewide.

The report by Attorney General Brian Frosh’s office’s Independent Investigations Division included information from the 23 police-involved deaths the unit investigated from its inception Oct. 1, 2021, to Sept. 30. Over that time, police shot and killed 13 people, seven people died during or as a result of officer pursuits, and three people died in police custody.

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The attorney general’s report showed minorities are killed by police in Maryland at a disproportionate rate, which mirrors national statistics. Willie Flowers, president of the NAACP Maryland State Conference, said the report showed an “alarming racial imbalance.”

The vast majority of those who died were men.

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Frosh’s office completed 13 investigations and sent its findings to the state’s attorneys for the localities where the person died. Local prosecutors made charging decisions in 11 police-involved fatalities, declining to pursue charges in each of those cases. In nine of those cases, prosecutors waited until the attorney general’s office finished its investigation and sent its report to decide whether to charge officers.

Reports from the Independent Investigations Division typically include a detailed account of facts, including the names of the officers involved, summaries of witness interviews, an inventory of evidence collected and tested, and an analysis of potential charges. The office does not recommend whether a state’s attorney should prosecute but does offer its interpretation of the evidence and how it aligns with relevant criminal law.

“Our goal is to be thorough, independent and transparent and then the facts will be what the facts will be and the cases are either there to bring or they’re not,” Dana Mulhauser, head of the Independent Investigations Division, said in an interview. “Our success or failure at the end of the day is not whether someone gets prosecuted, it’s whether we uncovered the facts that were there to be uncovered.”

Sgt. Clyde Boatwright, president of the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police, credited the Independent Investigations Division for preparing a report and conducting investigations that exhibited “no slant or bias.”

“I just think that the attorney general’s report backed everything we’ve been saying,” Boatwright said. “Clearly there has been a lack of prosecution because these cases haven’t called for prosecutions.”

Harford County State’s Attorney Albert Peisinger declined in June to bring charges against the Harford County sheriff’s deputies who fatally shot a man in April, before Mulhauser’s team had completed its investigation or submitted a report. Peisinger’s decision followed a public dispute between Frosh’s office and that of Republican Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler over whose office had primary jurisdiction to investigate.

A Harford County judge ordered Gahler to turn evidence over after Frosh, a Democrat, sued the sheriff. The independent investigative unit sent its report to Peisinger’s office last Wednesday.

After receiving an interim report from the attorney general, Frederick County State’s Attorney J. Charles Smith III declined to pursue charges against the Frederick Police officers in whose custody a man died in November 2021. The Independent Investigations Division’s report said it submitted an interim report because the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner was delayed in completing an autopsy.

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Men accounted for 21 of 23 people who died at the hands of police, according to the report.

Approximately 61% of the people killed were Black, 26% were white and the remainder were Hispanic, the report detailed. African American residents make up 31% of Marylanders; about 11% of the state’s population is Hispanic, according to census estimates.

More than 90% of the officers involved are men. About 84% are white.

“The high number of African Americans being killed is alarming but the other observation is the outstanding number of white males holding the gun,” Flowers, the state NAACP president, said in an email. “This should be studied and resolved.”

He called on police across the state to study each incident “so that both citizens and officers can go home and not be numbered in this report.”

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Mulhauser called the racial breakdown of people killed by police over the past year in Maryland “tragic.”

The disparity is “something we need to pay attention to and ask questions about,” Mulhauser said.

Heather Warnken, executive director of the University of Baltimore School of Law’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform, echoed concerns about the racial disparity.

“We have such a long way to go,” Warnken said. “But the fact that we have data to analyze here, the fact that we can pull up a report from the attorney general and see those disparities and dynamics so clearly, that’s really significant, moving from anecdote to evidence in these dynamics in ways that are irrefutable, especially in a space that has been notoriously not transparent and clear around data with these incidents.”

Boatwright defended police in Maryland, saying officers don’t consider a person’s race when deciding whether to use force.

“Use-of-force actions always depend on the actions of the person you’re using force against,” he said. “That’s just the way policing goes.”

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Excluding the fatalities during vehicle pursuits or collisions, 10 of 16 of the people killed were armed, according to the report. Three had knives, while seven had guns. In Harford County, the man shot dead by deputies had pointed a cane at police.

Of the five people who were unarmed, three were in custody and died following a medical emergency or drug overdose, according to the report.

As of July, state law requires that an officer’s use of force is “necessary and proportional.” According to a Feb. 25 opinion from the attorney general’s office, “necessary” means there must not be another reasonable alternative to the force used by the officer.

The opinion, issued at the request of Maryland State Police Superintendent Col. Woodrow Jones III, says “proportional” means the officer must not use more force than is necessary to prevent injury to a person and that an officer’s force must correspond to the interest they are trying to protect.

“For example, even if deadly force is the only feasible way to prevent the mere destruction of a piece of property, an officer may not use such force, because the harm likely to result is not proportional to the officer’s legitimate interest in protecting property,” lawyers with the attorney general’s office wrote. “Instead, an officer may use lethal force only in response to an apparent imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury to a person.”

The law says the reasonableness of an officer’s actions must be considered through the lens of what a reasonable officer in a similar situation would do. The presence of a weapon factors into that consideration.

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So do the officer’s training and the policies of the agency the officer works for, according to case reports from the Independent Investigations Division.

The investigative division counted 45 officers who were involved in the 23 fatalities. Of those officers, 13 were under age 30. Thirty-three officers — about 73% — had 10 or fewer years of experience.

“It is not age so much as experience that is a factor,” Mulhauser said.

Boatwright, a Baltimore City Schools Police officer, said he was surprised by the finding because “newer police officers come out better trained than people who have been around for a long time.”

There were police-involved fatalities in nine counties and Baltimore City, and by officers from 15 agencies. With four fatalities each, Baltimore and Baltimore County recorded more police-involved deaths than any other county over the time frame covered by the attorney general’s report.

“This is important for everyone in the state to look at and understand and to ask questions about and to notice,” Mulhauser said. “Our job as investigators is to make sure people see the facts that exist and [we] can’t ignore them.”


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