Four years ago, I stood in front of Gilmor Homes and announced that my office was dropping the charges against the remaining officers charged and indicted for the death of Freddie Gray.
I laid out the rationale in stark terms: “It has become clear to me that without being able to work with an independent investigatory agency from the start; without having a say on whether our cases will be seen in front of a judge or a jury; without community oversight of policing; and, without real substantive systemic reforms to the criminal justice system, we could try this case one hundred times, and cases just like it, and we would still end up with the same result.”
Now as our nation demands police accountability following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks, the systems that prevent police accountability still exist.
In the wake of the failed prosecutions, my office published a white paper detailing the difficulty in prosecuting police misconduct and suggesting legislative reforms, many of which fell on deaf ears. For example, the importance of conducting independent investigations from the inception of these types of cases. Currently the police department investigates their own officers and presents their findings to the prosecuting office, working with a natural conflict of interest.
The solution is for each prosecutor’s office to have the ability to independently investigate and prosecute the police from the start to the completion of a case. This merely requires that investigators in the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office be given police powers to arrest and serve warrants, the same way investigators can in most major cities. Prosecutors in Prince George’s, Dorchester and Garrett Counties are given this authority.
In the Gray homicide case, when we tried the first officer in front of a jury, the jury hung on charges of second-degree assault, involuntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment and misconduct in office, and the remaining officers elected a bench trial, where a judge decides the verdict. It remains unconscionable to me that public servants are able to circumvent the community they serve by avoiding trial by jury. At the federal level, such a decision can only be made if the defense, prosecution and judge agree. This standard should be the same in Maryland.
It is high time to reimagine policing in this country. For far too long, we’ve relied on police to fill the gap in social services in our city, and have tasked them with enforcing the criminalization of drug use, sex work, homelessness, truancy, and more. Across the country, we have seen this approach produce racially disparate arrests and fuel tensions between black people and police officers. We must instead fund the professionals who are trained in these areas and treat these challenges through a non-carceral lens. But we also must recognize that shifting budget priorities does not meet the challenge of this moment.
It must also be easier to hold rogue officers accountable. Because police misconduct is currently a misdemeanor, officers can remain on the payroll, even when incarcerated. Changing misconduct to a felony would enable speedier dismissal. But this must also be coupled with reform that makes it easier for the police commissioner to get rid of problematic officers.
In Minneapolis, the officer who kneeled on George Floyd for almost nine minutes had 18 substantiated internal affairs complaints against him. Someone with a record of police brutality in Baltimore City must not end up patrolling the streets of Prince George’s County. Therefore, information on misconduct should be publicly available throughout the state, via a database. Finally, officers often keep their jobs after committing crimes because administrative hearings on police misconduct take place before a panel stacked with former officers, leading to biased outcomes. Ordinary taxpayers should have the majority on such boards.
All of these proposals will be met with fierce resistance by police unions. While labor unions are a cornerstone of our democracy, police unions have sullied the name of the worker’s movement. They fight tooth-and-nail against even the most incremental reform, intimidate, mock and ridicule politicians who push for change, and protect problematic officers from firings. To reimagine policing without taking on the unions would be akin to tackling climate change without taking on oil companies.
The Maryland state legislature has announced a new task force on policing and the City Council is about to be infused with fresh faces. The public must push legislators to seize this moment and rethink public safety and policing. Many years have passed since the uprising, when thousands gathered to call for change. We cannot allow more time to pass before meaningful action on policing is taken.
Marilyn Mosby (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Baltimore State’s Attorney.