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Former prosecutors say homicide review had faults, but 'a lot of potential'

Former prosecutors speak out about homicide commission's potential

After traveling to Milwaukee in September to learn about a crime-fighting program in which prosecutors, police and academics analyze homicide trends and come up with solutions, Baltimore prosecutor Oana Brooks came away encouraged.

Brooks, who headed the juvenile courts division in the office of then-State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein, believed a similar program could improve outcomes for at-risk youth in Baltimore.

"Our juveniles commit felony crimes at a higher rate than those in other cities," she said. "It's not a popular idea, so people don't like to really think about that and talk about it. However, it is 100 [percent] true."

"I was always interested in a deeper conversation about that issue as well as public safety as a whole."

Brooks was one of a contingent of nine Baltimore officials — including representatives from the state's attorney's office and the Baltimore Police Department — who made the trip to evaluate the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission as plans to launch a similar program in Baltimore were gearing up.

State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby, who defeated Bernstein last year, has since decided that sharing information about pending homicide cases with other partners in the fledgling Baltimore Homicide Review Commission would compromise cases and jeopardize the safety of victims and witnesses.

That decision has put the $200,000 program on shaky ground. It still has the backing of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, and Mosby's office has said it will share information from cases that have already been through the courts.

But Daniel Webster, the academic chosen to lead the effort, said last week that Mosby's decision "completely took the air out of the whole process."

Webster, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, said that he and other city partners, including the health department, are now trying to revive it.

Brooks, who left the state's attorney's office after Mosby defeated Bernstein and now works for Hopkins' Office of Institutional Equity, said she also had concerns about jeopardizing cases, witnesses and victims, but believed she and other prosecutors could "work around" those issues and find solutions.

In Baltimore, she said, kids who are arrested at 12 or 13 years old for assault often end up charged with attempted murder or murder later in life. As she saw it, a Baltimore commission similar to that of Milwaukee could bring together officials from a broad array of agencies — schools, housing, parole and probation — to analyze common threads between those kids' lives.

"You start seeing where maybe it could have gone a different way, start considering what went wrong, what was missing, what everybody could do better, et cetera, so over time, you can start developing and implementing new policies," she said.

"The bottom line was that the program speaks for itself in Milwaukee and has had a tremendous success rate," Brooks said, and so "was worth considering and trying" in Baltimore.

Former Assistant State's Attorney Roya Hanna, a homicide prosecutor under Bernstein who resigned in early April and is now a defense attorney, also traveled to Milwaukee. She said she had mixed feelings.

"It had a lot of potential," she remembered thinking, "but it also was not necessarily designed for Baltimore."

She wasn't convinced a commission would have as great an impact in Baltimore as it did in Milwaukee, because some of the communication between prosecutors and police started by the Milwaukee commission already exists in Baltimore.

Hanna also had concerns, she said, about how prosecutors would square whatever work was produced by the commission with their own preparations for trial in homicide cases — and how that might affect the discovery process.

If the commission chased data — or tracked a gun — beyond the boundaries of the state's existing case against a homicide suspect, she said, it could produce "red herrings" along the way that "could be problematic to the prosecution."

Hanna thought the program would prove most beneficial in improving "accountability" in the Baltimore crime fight — including with the "violent repeat offenders" that officials say they are now targeting — by analyzing how often ex-offenders get into trouble while on probation and how prosecutors could improve those outcomes.

"The commission would have been good in that it would add a different perspective on accountability, and a different perspective in terms of what can be done to prevent the homicides, where the ball is being dropped," Hanna said. "If everyone is [committing crimes] on probation, maybe we can do something to supervise them better or not offer probation as much."

A spokeswoman for Mosby said Brooks' and Hanna's comments ignore programs that already are in place to address at-risk youth and crimes committed by people on probation.

Prosecutors are already in constant contact with the Department of Juvenile Services and with parole and probation officials, spokeswoman Tammy Brown said. And when a person is killed in the city, she said, alerts go out to caseworkers and others with knowledge of the person's connections and family ties.

Prosecutors are already in touch with police and academics through the city's GunStat meetings and other gatherings to share information, which Brown said have become more frequent than ever.

"We're not waiting for a weekly or a monthly [homicide commission] meeting," she said. "We're doing it on a daily basis now."

Mosby told WBAL radio this week that the commission made "absolutely no sense" in Baltimore, in part because law enforcement officials here already know what is driving the recent surge in killings: drugs, gangs and turf wars.

She called Baltimore the "home of witness intimidation" and said the program was a waste of money that would be better spent on witness protection.

Mosby is looking for grant funding to hire people with backgrounds in counseling, advocacy and social work for her Victim Witness Unit, Brown said. Mosby has also assigned several people to focus more time on reaching out to victims and witnesses of homicides, violent felonies, sexual assaults and rapes.

"Reaching out to victims is one of the state's attorney's No. 1 goals, and the basis of that is so that they have faith in the system again," Brown said.

A spokesman for Rawlings-Blake said that the mayor believes in the investment in the commission, and that deriding a successful crime-fighting program in another city simply because it is clear drugs and gangs are behind much of Baltimore's violent crime misses the point.

"We know that smoking causes cancer, but that doesn't mean that you stop looking for a cure," spokesman Kevin Harris said. "It's not to find out what the causes of violence are, it's to stop the violence."

Interim Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said Tuesday that the commission does "important work" that he hopes to "tailor" to Baltimore.

"We need to figure out a way to make it work for Baltimore," Davis said in his first public comments since Mosby disparaged the program. "The last thing we want to do is jeopardize ongoing investigations."

He said he hadn't heard Mosby's exact comments, but hoped to consult with her and the mayor to find a compromise to continue it.

Mosby has said the Police Department agreed with her decision not to share information from pending cases with the commission.

Baltimore has seen nearly 200 homicides this year, with 45 in July alone — tying the record for homicides in a single month, last reached in 1972.

The Baltimore Police Department's homicide clearance rate is below 34 percent.

Milwaukee has also seen a spike in homicides, with more this year than in all of last year. Still, Milwaukee — a city with a population similar in size to Baltimore's, with many of the same socioeconomic problems but a smaller police force — has about half the number of homicides.

The National Criminal Justice Association has credited the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission with helping drive homicides from an annual average of about 140 in the 1990s to about 80 in recent years.

Prosecutors in Milwaukee said they have not had problems with witness and victim information being compromised since the program launched there a decade ago.

Brown said Baltimore has a greater problem with witness intimidation than Milwaukee, and "people who leak information."

Brooks, the former prosecutor, said she still believes that "if done correctly," the commission "could be a tremendous asset" — forcing conversations about tough subjects such as the correlation between pre-teen assault charges and later homicides.

She called the idea that crime in Baltimore is only about drugs and gangs and violent repeat offenders "incredibly shortsighted."

"Establishing motive is always relevant," she said. "It is especially relevant at a time like this where our city has seen such a drastic spike in violence.

"If they are so few and we know it's about drugs and gangs, why haven't we gotten them off our streets? It's just not that simple."

Baltimore Sun reporter Colin Campbell contributed to this article.

krector@baltsun.com

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