As Maryland lawmakers consider policing reforms, local prosecutors are pushing to maintain their authority to prosecute cases of police misconduct.
Elected state’s attorneys told a group of lawmakers Thursday that they are better suited to take problem officers to court — not the attorney general, the state prosecutor or another entity.
“My office is the best equipped to handle police misconduct that occurs in the community,” Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby told members of a House of Delegates work group on police accountability.
Taking that away, she said, would undermine the will of the people who elected her to prosecute crimes in the community.
“If I don’t do my job, guess what happens?” said Mosby, a Democrat. “They vote me out.”
As lawmakers grapple with ways to make policing more equitable and how to hold police officers accountable, one of the many suggestions has been to have independent authorities investigate and prosecute cases of alleged police misconduct.
Four state’s attorneys who testified Thursday said they support having an entity outside the police department investigate accusations against police officers. But they want to maintain their role in taking those cases to court.
They cautioned specifically against having the Office of the State Prosecutor, which already handles political and government corruption cases, take on the duties of prosecuting police. The prosecutor is appointed by the governor, which they suggested could cause politics to leak into prosecutorial decisions.
Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy, a Democrat, said transferring police prosecutions out of state’s attorneys' offices would amount to usurping a constitutional obligation that prosecutors have.
When there are legitimate conflicts of interest, Braveboy said, there are policies in place, such as sending the case to a different county for prosecution.
The state’s attorneys also said their prosecutors are the best trained and most experienced, especially when it comes to handling homicide cases.
Public defenders, on the other hand, countered that state’s attorneys have an inherent conflict of interest when it comes to prosecuting problem cops, because they work day-in and day-out with police officers to build their cases.
The concern is magnified in small and rural jurisdictions where “everyone knows everyone," said Chasity Simpson, district public defender for the Lower Eastern Shore.
Deborah Katz Levi from the Baltimore Office of the Public Defender said if another agency takes over prosecuting police misconduct, it could recruit top prosecutors onto the team.
“You could staff any agency with the best from around the state that would know reasonableness for use of force and would have no direct allegiance to those they are investigating,” she said.
During a three-hour online meeting, the prosecutors and public defenders also touched on issues about gaining access to police disciplinary files, the challenges of handling voluminous amounts of body camera footage and how the state’s Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights makes it difficult for police chiefs to fire problem officers.
The House of Delegates work group has spent months weighing these issues with an eye toward introducing bills related to policing during the 2021 General Assembly session. Last month, lawmakers heard from representatives of police, many of whom advocated against repealing the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights.
The state Senate also is moving forward on policing issues, with three afternoons of online public hearings on 15 bills scheduled for the Judicial Proceedings Committee next week.
Among the draft bills are proposals that would change how police misconduct cases are investigated and prosecuted, require officers intervene when other officers use excessive force, ban police departments from obtaining certain military surplus weapons, require psychological exams for police officers every three years, and modify or eliminate the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights.
The Judicial Proceedings Committee allowed up to 35 people to sign up to testify for each day’s hearing; all slots were claimed within hours of opening online registration Thursday.
Both chambers are doing their work with an eye toward January, when the General Assembly opens its next regular legislative session and Democratic lawmakers hope to pass legislation addressing violent and inequitable policing.
Some progressive interest groups have pushed lawmakers to hold a special session on this and other issues, but House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones and Senate President Bill Ferguson said this week that’s not going to happen.