The tragic killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis earlier this year sparked outrage and ignited a feverish outcry against police brutality. The weeks and months that followed saw massive demonstrations and left lawmakers grappling to address what many people who look like me have always known — policing in America is broken. Black people in this country have suffered at the hands of those sworn to serve and protect, and that must end now. With state lawmakers considering widespread reforms to address police brutality, the role of local prosecutors in holding police accountable must be scrutinized.
Recently The Baltimore Sun published an article highlighting comments Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby and Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy made to a legislative work group on police accountability. They maintain that local prosecutors are in the best position to handle police misconduct cases. However, this is simply incorrect. Local prosecutors lack the specialized expertise and independence to effectively prosecute and win cases against offending officers.
Historically, local prosecutors do not have a great track record when it comes to securing convictions in police misconduct cases. State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby failed to convict any of the six officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray. Rather than accept responsibility for her office’s failure, she has sought to place the blame elsewhere, substantiating her own personal agenda aimed at gaining police powers for her prosecutors and eliminating criminal defendants' ability to choose a trial before a judge instead of a jury.
These are little more than excuses for failed prosecutions. Whether a case is tried before a judge or a jury, the law remains the same, and prosecutors must have the necessary expertise to prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt in order to win and hold the police accountable. In the Freddie Gray case, neither Deputy State’s Attorney Janice Bledsoe, nor Deputy State’s Attorney Michael Schatzow, the prosecutors in the case, had the experience needed to prosecute a police-involved homicide.
Further, local prosecutors seem unwilling to acknowledge the blatant conflict of interest their offices face in pursuing police misconduct cases. After all, prosecutors work with police officers every day. They bring cases and attempt to gain convictions by working together. Consider for a moment the deliberate indifference the Baltimore City State Attorney’s Office displayed toward the criminal activities of the Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF). Defense attorneys, myself included, repeatedly informed the State’s Attorney’s Office about questionable practices and illegal activities GTTF officers engaged in against our clients. The state’s attorney’s office intentionally turned a blind eye and prioritized convictions over justice, as further detailed in the book “I Got a Monster,” by Baynard Woods and Brandon Soderberg. After speaking with multiple people, including former prosecutors, and analyzing courtroom footage, the authors concluded that prosecutors continued to rely on testimony from the criminal cops in their attempts to lock up the very people whom GTTF had illegally arrested.
Recently, some supporters of reform have suggested that the Attorney General’s Office prosecute officers, but it is essential to remember that the OAG not only actively investigates and prosecutes crimes, just like local prosecutors, but also handles all criminal appeals on behalf of the state, making the potential for conflict entirely too great and hurting the public’s trust in the system. That is not the solution either.
Instead, we should follow the advice of progressive members of our state legislature, like Sen. Jill Carter, a Baltimore Democrat, and establish an independent office tasked with conducting neutral investigations and effective prosecutions of criminal cops. Such independent offices would be inherently free from the conflict of interest so often experienced by local prosecutors. Deborah Katz Levi of the Baltimore Office of the Public Defender hits the nail on the head when she says that a specialized statewide agency could recruit the talent necessary to secure convictions against offending officers. Under the auspices of such an office, investigators and prosecutors would receive specialized training and work with experts in their field to ensure effective investigations and prosecutions.
Only when fewer criminal cops stop escaping responsibility for their crimes and wrongdoings will true reform begin. Perhaps now, more than ever, there is a palpable sense of urgency that reforming police can no longer wait. We need substantive, meaningful reform that will hold criminal cops accountable, not misguided policies and political ploys that will continue the disenfranchisement of people of color and fail to address the real issues at play.
Ivan Bates (Ivan@BatesGarcia.com) is a Baltimore attorney and former candidate for Baltimore State’s Attorney.