Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Tough, Transparent or Neither?

David Simon of The Wire fame has an interesting piece on his blog.  It's long (over 4500 words) so I will boil it down:
  • Police and prosecutors are pulling statistical tricks on the public because The Sun is no longer adequately staffed to properly cover the crime beat.
  • The police have ceded to State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein complete authority to charge murder cases.  This makes his rate of convictions artificially high and the police rate of unsolved murders artificially low.
There's a lot more to the article, of course--the details and explanations, some self-justification, and a proposed solution.  But here's what I found most interesting: that a State's Attorney who campaigned on the promise of transparency and the willingness to take on tough cases has apparently retreated on both fronts.  

According to Simon, Bernstein is using his unilateral power to charge cases to cherry pick the best cases, a tactic that should keep his conviction rate high for political purposes.  Bernstein directly criticized his predecessor for dropping tough cases, but at least she took the hit in her statistics.  She just blamed the police for lousy work.  But, says Simon, Bernstein can make his conviction statistics look great by not charging cases to begin with.

To which I say, what statistics?  I went to a meeting of the Baltimore Criminal Justice Coordinating Council earlier this year at which Bernstein gave his "annual" report.  (His predecessor gave a quarterly report.)  Bernstein talked completely in generalities, with not a single benchmark with which to measure his performance.

I asked for a follow-up meeting, and learned from him that it was a "little too early" to report out on the accomplishments of his new violence unit (that was nearly a year old) and that he had little handle on other statistics, sources of statistics, or plans to publish statistics.  During his campaign he said he would post his conviction rates on his website, but 18 months into his tenure they have yet to appear.  Where's the transparency?

Perhaps it's still "a little too early" for Bernstein, but when it comes to murder cases he had better get his conviction rates out there quickly before the police take back their power to charge.  Bernstein's wife, Sheryl Goldstein, who headed the Mayor's Office on Criminal Justice, announced her resignation hours after Police Commissioner Fred Bealefeld announced his.  Goldstein and Bealefeld were joined at the hip. 

It was Goldstein who greased all the wheels for her husband when it came to police-prosecutor relationships.  I worried at the outset that the situation was a little too cozy but saw negligible reporting or concern from the Sun (which underscores Simon's point on adequate beat coverage.)

But with a new police commissioner and no wife in the mayor's office, Bernstein will have to stand on his own two feet.  I doubt the new top cop will give up the right to charge cases.  Prosecutors and police should cooperate and collaborate, but also balance each other.  It's not healthy for one to dictate to the other.

And while we wait for a new police commissioner perhaps Bernstein can start working on the transparency he promised.  We might find out which claim is true: Bernstein's that he's tough, or Simon's that he's cherry picking.