Nevermind that the Baltimore Police Department is in the midst of the largest corruption case in recent history, the top prosecutor is considering eliminating the police misconduct unit. In office for only a few months, Gregg Bernstein has already eliminated a list banning certain officers from testifying at trials because of their known credibility issues. What isn’t clear is why he is moving in these directions.
The Police Misconduct Unit of the local prosecutor’s office was specifically created to handle issues within the local police department when there was the potential for criminal charges. It is only a decade old, though it may not last much longer if Bernstein has his way.
While the elimination of this unit would be contrary to what other cities across the nation are doing, it seems Bernstein is trying to mend a formerly troubled relationship between his office and the police department. One professor remarks, “There’s a kind of loss of confidence in the whole law enforcement structure of the city of the two main players are feuding with each other.”
What he doesn’t touch on is the public’s confidence in the “law enforcement structure” when there’s no formal route for accountability issues. For instance, if the department handles its misconduct internally, will the public have faith that the system will require accountability for complaints of misconduct? It seems discord between the police and the prosecutor’s office can be achieved without hampering the relationship between the police and the public they are tasked with protecting.
According to the Baltimore Sun, Bernstein has declined to comment on the changes aside from a paltry 500 word statement sent out last week, citing a “tight” schedule and an inability to “meet or talk on the phone” about the issues at hand.
The changes and Bernstein’s “clean up” of current processes and procedures are an attempt to undo harm caused by a serious rift between the former State Prosecutor and local police.
In Prince George County, another new prosecutor is making changes too, though hers are interestingly contrary to Bernstein’s. Prosecutor Angela Alsobrooks has created a Special Prosecutions Unit for issues involving police misconduct and corruption and has created a list banning certain officers from testifying (similar to the one destroyed by Bernstein).
The reason for such a list is pretty simple. If a prosecutor calls an officer to testify in a criminal case and that officer has any history of lying or misconduct allegations, his testimony can be pretty unconvincing and actually harm the state’s case. By not calling such officers, they eliminate the risk of damaging a criminal case against a defendant.
What Bernstein does with his intentions to dismantle the Police Misconduct Unit remains to be seen. However, he should be cautious not to harm the already damaged public trust in the Baltimore Police Department.
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