Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Sad Truth Behind the Statistics

originally published December 9, 2009

Baltimore State’s Attorney Pat Jessamy has gotten very, very good at torturing her law enforcement partner, the police department. She can take an insult and make it sound like a compliment. And she continues to wield statistics like a hammer.

The most recent example can be found in a story reported by the Baltimore Sun. "Police, prosecutors working better together, Jessamy says." (Nov. 27) Jessamy says that police and prosecutors are collaborating better together because her statistics show that fewer criminal cases have been dropped for “legal insufficiency.”

Her statistics show no such thing. And just by making the claim she reveals how much she intends to control public perception of police performance, hardly the thing any true collaborator would do.

In truth, the working relationship between ordinary police officers and prosecutors hasn’t changed much over the years. Only the relationship at the top has changed, the one between Jessamy and whoever happens to be the police commissioner. It changed because Jessamy attacked the police department as a way to fight her feud with Mayor Martin O’Malley nearly 10 years ago, and it proved so politically fruitful for her that she just can’t stop. Jessamy’s word for the police-prosecutor relationship is “schizophrenic.” That is what she and she alone has made it.

A great example of her “schizophrenia” can be seen in the very article in which she claims to give us positive news. First she claims progress has been because fewer cases have been dropped. Translation: the police are doing a better job. Then she gives them the back of her hand, stating that “we still have a long way to go” because of a handful of police no-shows in court. In other words, any problems that exist all lie with the police. And she, and only she, can report on when they are doing well and when they are not.

If Jessamy’s statistics really could be used to assess police performance, that would be one thing. But they can’t. Jessamy’s favorite term to describe why she drops cases is “legal insufficiency,” and this she always puts on the police. But legal insufficiency can mean anything, including witnesses who recant, lab tests that come back negative, police officers who are deployed to Iraq and can’t testify. These have nothing to do with police performance. And I have seen as many lazy prosecutors who refuse to try a case they ought to try as I have lazy police.

So “legal insufficiency” is in the eye of the beholder and the beholder is Jessamy. But what is she even beholding? Not once during my years of gathering statistics for Jessamy did she meet with any supervisors to discuss the significance of the statistics. What did they say about individual prosecutors? About the office and how it handled certain types of cases? Did all prosecutors even turn in their statistics? (No.)

Jessamy conducts no internal analysis and holds no one in her own office accountable. She creates statistics only to interpret them for others, knowing that no one reads or understands them.

But I do. And when I see a claim that the collaboration between police and prosecutors is improving because only 42 cases were dropped through August compared with 113 in all of 2008 I did a double take. What Jessamy’s statistics really say is that 75 cases have been dropped through June for what she calls legal insufficiency. That projects to 150 for the year—nearly a third more than in 2008.

So beware of Jessamy’s compliments of the police. Based on the same faulty premise as her criticisms, they serve only as a form of control, a bone thrown with one hand while the other wields a whip.

There will be no true police-prosecutor collaboration as long as Jessamy remains in office. And that’s the real truth behind her statistics.

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