Monday, February 22, 2010

The Cost of Failed Teamwork

originally published June 29, 2009

Last week was a mess for the Baltimore Police Department, and it threatens to get uglier still.

First, disciplinary charges against dozens of police officers were dropped because the attorney in charge of pursuing them, JoAnn Woodson-Branche, apparently mishandled them. Most prominent among those cases, perhaps, were those that stemmed from the alleged rape of a prostitute by Officer Jemini Jones.

Then Woodson-Branche promised to prove "incredibly horrendous acts of crime and malfeasance” by the police department, according to the Baltimore Sun. Woodson-Branche, who was fired in April, apparently wants to take down her former boss, Deputy Commissioner Deborah Owens, who is not particularly popular in the police department and makes an inviting target for redirecting criticism. And Woodson-Branche is represented by Warren Brown, who also represented Jemini Jones at one point. It’s already starting to smell.

The public should not expect to get the truth out of this. The media needs to be careful about what it publishes.

But one fact it never published about the Jones case was how the State’s Attorney’s Office sabotaged any chance of success. On December 27, 2005, a prostitute alleged that Jones had raped her at the Southwestern police station after he had arrested her that day. When police investigators shared this allegation with the State’s Attorneys Office, prosecutors—not the police—secured an indictment from the Grand Jury on January 5, 2006, merely nine days after the allegation was made. That practically amounted to prosecutorial malpractice.

It’s notoriously difficult to convince juries of rape no matter who the victim and the defendant may be. For prosecutors to prove that a cop raped a prostitute? Only a careful investigation piecing together enough evidence to significantly support the victim’s story would give them a fighting chance.

When the story broke, police told Sun reporters that they had not yet investigated the case. Warren Brown, retained by Jones, claimed that the State’s Attorney’s Office was trying to embarrass the police department.

Right on both counts. The State’s Attorney’s Office, who could and should have assisted police investigators in putting together a solid case, instead halted any meaningful investigation by charging the case and then leaking what police documents they had to the media. When Jones’s attorney ridiculed the police investigation during the trial, prosecutor JoAnne Stanton could only respond with an irony lost on the jury, "Would I have liked a better investigated case? Absolutely."

She absolutely had the chance to make that happen. She didn’t. Jones was acquitted, the criminal cases against two other officers dropped, and they all looked like victims.

So was it Stanton’s fault? I don’t think so. The fiasco had the fingerprints of Margaret T. Burns, spokesperson for State’s Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, all over it. The interference with operational matters, the premature rush to charge a case that would embarrass the police department, the immediate and unethical leaking of documents-- that was the Burns M.O. The harmful effects are still being felt by all of those involved.

If all of this was in the past, I wouldn’t bother to bring it up. But Burns and Jessamy are still at the helm of the prosecutor’s office. And they are still doing their thing. It’s quieter now, more subtle, because Police Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld and Sheryl Goldstein, who directs the Mayor’s Office on Criminal Justice, are too professional to fight. The wars of the O’Malley mayoral years are over, even if the damage continues to manifest itself. But Jessamy is no more a crime-fighting partner now than she was before.

I took a recent look at her website. Sitting there was a link to an article about suspects who go free when police officers fail to appear in court. It’s the kind of thing you wouldn’t find on any other partner’s website. Just a little burr placed under the police saddle, a reminder as to who can and will strike them at any time if they choose.

The first thing needed to make progress against crime is trusting partnership among the law enforcement agencies. Unfortunately, Baltimore may be doomed from the start.

A True Partner

At a recent “Meet the Prosecutors” event that Jessamy put on for community members, the head of the Narcotics unit told the audience that his staff was “singlehandedly” responsible for bringing down a gang called the Tree Top Pirus. I thought he must have misspoken, the way people can do when they are speaking without notes and their adrenaline is rushing.

But the clarification I asked for left no doubt: “…Narcotics prosecutors single-handedly initiated the wiretap investigations that brought down three separate groups of gangs: Tree Top Pirus, Black Guerilla Family, and most recently the Pasadena Denver Lanes…The SAO then asked our federal partners to become involved.”

Nonsense. The investigations were directed federally. State prosecutors contributed to the effort by requesting the wiretaps simply because they are easier to get in state court. But they were part of the overarching federal investigation.

Jessamy doesn’t need to grab for credit. Rod Rosenstein, the U.S. Attorney for Maryland, is more than gracious in dishing it out. He lists all participating agencies before his own in his press releases. He invites Jessamy to appear and speak at news conferences with him. He behaves as a true partner, putting the mission ahead of his own aggrandizement.

What a refreshing example.

No comments:

Post a Comment