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Shootings by police languish on prosecutors' desks

Eleven out of the 17 police shootings in Baltimore during the past 16 months languish with prosecutors.

The man entered the West Baltimore liquor store and announced an armed robbery.

An off-duty police detective shot him to death.

Within hours, police brass were commending the detective for doing "the absolute right thing." Surveillance cameras captured him holding a gun at his side.

Nine months later, the case remains under review by the Baltimore state's attorney's office. The detective has been neither cleared nor charged in the shooting, leaving both the detective and the family of 44-year-old Robert Jerome Howard in limbo.

The experience is common: Eleven out of the 17 police shootings in Baltimore during the past 16 months languish with prosecutors.

That's in sharp contrast to the case against the officers in the April 2015 arrest and death of Freddie Gray, when State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby decided to bring charges within weeks, and in shootings among civilians, when prosecutors typically are quick to make such a determination.

Prosecutors say investigations of police shootings can be sensitive and complex. Attorneys are assigned to the cases from the beginning, and completed police investigations are reviewed at various levels before they reach Mosby.

Deputy State's Attorney Janice Bledsoe oversees those reviews.

"We have information the public doesn't have, and so what may appear to be a simple case may not be simple to us," she said. "We may have different questions than the Police Department has — we may as lawyers see it in a different light, and so it does take longer."

But the delays frustrate officers sidelined by investigations, as well as those who are shot or their survivors, who are denied clarity.

"If the officers did something wrong, prosecute them," said Gene Ryan, president of the union that represents rank-and-file officers in Baltimore. "If they didn't, let them get back in the saddle and protecting the citizens of Baltimore. What are they waiting for?"

Arnetta Hamilton, a cousin of Howard's, says her cousin was wrong to pull the gun (which was ultimately determined to be a replica).

Still, she wants to know the results of the investigation into his death, to learn whether police followed procedure properly.

"If you don't push them [for answers], they're going to think that nobody cares, that he was nobody," Hamilton said. "It shouldn't be swept under the rug."

Police say their records show most cases are turned over to prosecutors within two weeks to three months.

Police shootings, many captured by surveillance cameras, body cameras or cellphones, have been drawing sharper scrutiny and have sparked protests.

But deciding whether the officers' actions are justified has never been a quick process. Prosecutors in Baltimore and elsewhere routinely take months to make legal determinations about police actions, even when suspects who survive the encounters are charged immediately.

Analysts say the standards by which police actions are judged are more complicated.

Charges remain rare. One Baltimore officer has been charged in an on-duty shooting since 2008. Wesley Cagle was convicted by a jury last year of first-degree assault and a handgun charge for shooting an unarmed burglary suspect in the groin.

In that case, two officers told investigators that the victim posed no threat. It took more than seven months for investigators to bring charges against Cagle.

It has sometimes taken as long for investigators to decide not to press charges

It took seven months for prosecutors to determine it was a "good shoot" when Maj. Byron Conaway wounded a man in Morrell Park who refused to remove his hands from his pockets in September 2015. They said Conaway couldn't take the chance that the man was armed.

It took them six months to find that officers were justified in shooting father and son Matthew Wood and Kimani Johnson to death last April after they jumped out of a car in Greenmount West with loaded guns.

They "concluded that there is no legal basis to charge these officers, who appear to have prevented even further violence on the streets of Baltimore."

Among the cases from last year that remain open is the shooting of Dedric Colvin, the 14-year-old boy who ran from police with a toy gun in East Baltimore last April. It was the anniversary of the riots that followed Gray's death.

An attorney for Colvin and his family said they are "disappointed at the delay."

"We hold out hope that justice will prevail," attorney Hassan Murphy said.

Also awaiting a determination is the shooting of Alex Brizzi, the 25-year-old who visited the studios of Fox 45 last April wearing an animal costume and threatening to blow the station up with a bomb.

Members of the city's SWAT team shot and wounded Brizzi. The bomb turned out to be chocolate bars strapped to his body. He pleaded guilty to five felony counts and was committed to Spring Grove Hospital Center for mental health treatment.

Some — including the police union — criticized city prosecutors for being too quick to file charges against six officers in Gray's death.

That was a particularly intensive investigative effort, with police standing up a special task force and prosecutors conducting an independent investigation amid the pressure of protests and other unrest.

Still, Chief Deputy State's Attorney Michael Schatzow said last year that no new evidence emerged after the initial two-week investigation to cause a delay in filing charges.

"If you looked at the timeline from [the day Gray was injured] until the day the indictments were returned, you wouldn't see a curve going up of increasing evidence," he said after three of the officers were acquitted and charges against the rest were dropped. "It would be to the contrary."

Bledsoe said the Gray case was not comparable to others.

She said statements provided by the officers involved aided investigators, and the medical examiner's autopsy ruling was unusually quick.

In other cases, she said, the evidence is examined by an assigned prosecutor, then the supervisor of the homicide or police integrity unit, then Bledsoe, then Schatzow, and ultimately Mosby.

"It goes through a number of screenings so we can answer all the questions and get a decision," Bledsoe said.

Police officers have the right to remain silent when they are being investigated for potential criminal charges for actions taken on duty, and attorneys with the police union often advise them against giving a statement.

That leaves prosecutors to work with other information — surveillance camera footage, physical evidence, and accounts from officers who did not fire and other witnesses.

During internal affairs reviews, investigators may force officers to give a statement. But they wait until the conclusion of the criminal review to compel such statements.

That means the longer it takes to determine criminal culpability, the longer it might take to get officer statements. And that can cause problems in court when a suspect's case is ready to go to trial but key statements have yet to surface.

A delay in the investigation of the shooting of Dawan Hawkins last year caused multiple postponements of his trial for assaulting police and carrying a handgun. Public defender Martin Cohen said he didn't want to go to trial without seeing officers' statements.

"We couldn't proceed without that statement from the police officer," Cohen said. Hawkins was acquitted of all but one of the charges he faced, one count of reckless endangerment.

Davi Ralph was shot multiple times by police last May. Police say he had fired shots in the direction of officers. Ralph was quickly charged with attempted murder and related charges for his role, but the investigation of the officers remains pending.

In court on Friday, his public defender, Scott Reid, expressed frustration that he didn't have statements from the officers to review.

Reid also said DNA testing on the weapon had not been conducted by the police crime lab, and prosecutors had delayed until recently turning over sophisticated "360-degree" crime scene photos.

The prosecutor on the case, Shari Greene, told a judge that she didn't know the crime scene photos existed until Reid inquired.

"This man has spent the first six months — after one of the most traumatic experiences anyone can go through, incarcerated and getting substandard medical care, and we don't even know if what happened to him was legal, justified, or in any way what the initial charges claim to be," Reid said in an interview.

He said it was "ludicrous" that officers' statements aren't available as Ralph heads to trial.

"These are people involved in a criminal case, and they're withholding information that would be pertinent to this investigation."

jfenton@baltsun.com

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