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Editorial

Maryland’s attorney general should have power to prosecute cops who kill without justification | COMMENTARY

Anthony Brown might soon have the authority as Maryland's attorney general to prosecute police officers whose criminal behavior results in the death of civilians under a proposal expected to be introduced in the next session of the Maryland General Assembly. File. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Last year, the Maryland General Assembly gave the state’s attorney general the power (and the financial resources) to investigate police-involved deaths of civilians. It wasn’t a new responsibility given lightly but as part of a package of police reforms. Beginning on Oct. 1, 2021, the Independent Investigations Division within the Maryland Attorney General’s Office has been scrutinizing every incident statewide where a civilian has been killed and one or more police officers were involved. In each case, state investigators took a look at the matter — from shootings to high-speed chases and other possible encounters — and then submitted their findings to local state’s attorneys for possible prosecution, most within a matter of two weeks.

The first full year of incidents were compiled into a 48-page report released on Nov. 29 that reviews a total of 23 deaths and raises an important question: If Maryland has gone to the trouble of creating an independent office to investigate police-involved deaths, shouldn’t the results go to an independent prosecutor as well?

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Here’s the easy answer: Yes. Just as Attorney General Brian E. Frosh recommended when the IID was first proposed, it just makes sense that if the state is to assume the investigatory responsibility as an independent third party, the decision over whether to prosecute ought to be handled similarly. Public trust in law enforcement is simply better served if incidents of fatalities involving law enforcement officers are subject to not just outside scrutiny but also are left to outside prosecutors to decide whether criminal charges should follow. It is to the benefit of the community, the police agency, the deceased’s family and, yes, of the officer as well.

Take one example. Eight months ago, a Harford County sheriff’s deputy shot and killed a civilian. The sheriff’s office chose not to cooperate. As outlined by the AG’s report, investigators were not allowed to process the scene, as the investigation was controlled by the sheriff who refused to recognize the IID’s authority and even kept control of all footage from police body-worn cameras. Soon after the April 23 episode, the AG’s office filed suit in Harford County Circuit Court to force compliance with state law. The judge granted a restraining order, but “a further problem arose.” The county state’s attorney announced he would not be prosecuting the casebefore the IID investigation was complete. Did that turn out to be wrong call? We don’t know. It may well have been “suicide by police” as was claimed. But it certainly doesn’t look good when decisions are announced before all the evidence is in. How can the public have faith that it was the correct judgment?

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The temptation in such cases is apparent. Local state’s attorneys rely on their relationships with local police agencies to handle the routine matter of investigating and prosecuting crimes of all sorts. The creates a kind of coziness and interdependence that doesn’t lend itself to handling potential misconduct by one or the other. Add to that the possibility of racial bias in the use of deadly force — a matter of considerable public interest in recent years — and it would seem absolutely necessary to have this level of state involvement. The loss of trust in law enforcement and local prosecutors is no small matter.

Sen. William C. Smith Jr., the Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, has already pledged to introduce legislation in the coming General Assembly session to give Attorney General-elect Anthony Brown and the IID prosecutorial power in these cases. We trust lawmakers will support such a move. It’s not supportive of law enforcement to fail to provide such individuals with proper oversight. Quite the contrary. How can police officers, whether patrolling the streets of Baltimore or the rural byways of Carroll County, do their jobs effectively if the public trust has been so ruinously damaged? How much better it would be if average citizens can have complete faith that everyone is held accountable under the law.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.


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