City Prosecutors to Begin Explaining Decisions Not to Charge Police for Use of Force

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Prosecutors in Baltimore have made a move that should please advocates of increased transparency in investigations of cases involving use of force by police officers.

On Friday, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s office announced the city has joined other jurisdictions whose prosecutors are now explaining to the public online exactly why they have not decided to pursue charges against officers being investigated for using force against suspects. The initiative is called the “Use of Force Project,” devised by the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.

“This is what the public needs in order to rebuild its faith in the criminal justice system,” Mosby said in a statement. “I’m glad to have the support and partnership of some of the most progressive prosecutorial minds in the country on this initiative.”

Prosecutors in Baltimore will now be posting summaries of their decisions in cases where they decide not to press charges against police officers. Each decision will follow the Baltimore Police Department’s own investigations against their officers if they receive a use of force complaint. The summaries will be available at this link. (It’s not up and running yet, though a couple summaries of cases from last year are now visible on the SAO’s homepage.)

According to the state’s attorney’s office, each summary will explain prosecutors’ or independent investigators’ decisions and will offer “supporting evidence and documentation for the declination to charge.” If they decide to charge an officer, the public won’t have access to those details, as that’s the standard for any active criminal investigation.

Police last year rewrote their use of force policy as the U.S. Justice Department was conducting an investigation of the Baltimore Police Department. Chief police spokesman T.J. Smith previously told Baltimore Fishbowl that change helped to reduce the number of complaints for use of force against police in 2016.

Members of the public can submit complaints about use of force directly to police, who say they then have supervising staff for the involved officer review the case, or utilize the city’s Civilian Review Board to file a complaint.

Use of force been a major issue for the department in recent years, according to the DOJ’s damning report released last August, and is a major focus of the consent decree containing required reforms for the department. (The phrase “use of force” appears 104 times in the consent decree.)

A spokeswoman for the state’s attorney’s office hasn’t responded to a request for information about how many cases prosecutors investigated last year involving use of force by police.

The ACLU of Maryland, which advocates for increased transparency in investigations of police misconduct and use of force, hasn’t returned a request for comment on the change.

Mosby’s decision to join other jurisdictions in adopting a more open policy for publicizing such decisions follows the city’s top prosecutor’s January trip to the Major County Prosecutors’ Council in San Francisco, where she said she helped finalize a 27-page document proposing new standards for prosecution. One of those new standards called for more open communication with the public when prosecutors decide not to charge an officer.

“To improve the criminal justice system, we have to make holistic changes,” said Deputy State’s Attorney Janice Bledsoe, overseer of the SAO’s Police Integrity and Police Trust Unit, in a statement. “We must recognize and respond to the public’s right to know what happened when a resident is harmed or killed by law enforcement.”

Ethan McLeod
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