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David Simon to Gregg Bernstein: Take Responsibility For Those Murders

June 20, 2012

Bernstein in July 2010, talking about Jessamy letting bad guys off

David Simon has a must-read post on his blog about a statistic seldom discussed these days. The number in question: 70. That’s the number of people Baltimore prosecutors charged with murder in 2011–a year when there were 198 murders overall. That’s bad, but it’s especially important because it’s much worse that the years prior, when there were about twice as many people charged with murder.

This is something called the “clearance rate.” Baltimore PD’s clearance rate for murders is currently hovering around 42 percent, according to this savvy June 7 update by the Sun’s Justin Fenton.

Simon, who covered cops for a decade or so here back in the day before moving on to book-writing and then fictionalizing that beat in the hit shows Homicide: Life On The Streets and The Wire, takes Fenton one better. [UPDATE: Actually, turns out Fenton was on this story almost a year ago. Solid, just as Simon says it should be. Weird that it didn't become a thing then. Weirder still that Simon doesn't mention link to it*].  Simon explains [again] why it is happening:

Are Baltimore’s killers showing more cunning, are murders becoming harder to solve?  No indication of that from any quarter.  Did the homicide unit lose a ton of veteran talent?  Nope.  Not between 2010 and 2011 at any rate.  No, the dramatic collapse of the department’s investigative response to murder is the result of a quiet, backroom policy change that has created a bureaucratic disincentive to charge people in homicides.

The deal is this: Starting last year, the sole arbiter of who gets arrested for murder in Baltimore is the State’s Attorney. If he or his designee doesn’t give the OK, the cop cannot arrest the guy he thinks did the deed. Always before, arrests were made after consultation with the prosecutor, Simon explains, but the cops were free enough to bust a suspect on their own initiative.

How does that change things? Here Simon gives a great tutorial on how the statistics actually work. It boils down like this: Baltimore police (and police everywhere) count a case as “cleared” when they make an arrest. The FBI collects this number in its Uniform Crime Reports.

The States Attorney, meantime, counts convictions against the cases it actually charges. So the prosecutor might say his office gets a conviction 80 percent of the time.

But: not every person arrested, even if they’re busted for murder, gets charged in court. Simon says in 1988, back when he was at the Sun, 22 Baltimore murder defendants saw their charges dropped by the prosecutor prior to indictment.

So the cops took credit for “clearing” those cases by arrest, but the prosecutor, seeing cases so weak not even a grand jury would indict, dropped the charges, and let them go. Simon:

Get it?  Twenty-two murder cases in that given year of 1988 went under the rug, with neither side in this dynamic taking responsibility for the outcome. The police department took credit for the arrests, even though the cases were dumped unceremoniously without even a grand jury indictment.  And the prosecutor in Baltimore took no responsibility for these cases in assessing his own office’s performance. By such statistical dishonesties –of which this is not the only one, believe me — the Baltimore department was able to maintain a clearance rate in the high sixties in that given year and the State’s Attorney was able to claim a conviction rate in the low eighties in that same year.  But of course, the actual chance of anyone going to jail for any length of time for killing anyone in Baltimore in 1988 was just below 40 percent. Whoever said there were lies, damn lies and statistics needs to create a fourth, more extreme category for law enforcement stats.

What this means is that Gregg Bernstein, who ran a savvy campaign claiming that former States Attorney Pat Jessamy “fails to fight for and obtain convictions,” now gets to engineer his own conviction rate by cherry-picking the most slam-dunk cases and throwing back the rest, Simon argues.

So the police department looks bad (it used to claim to “clear” 60 percent of Baltimore’s murders) and the prosecutor looks good. And no one notices why.

Simon’s solution is pretty straightforward: Change the way the stats are kept so no one can shirk responsibility. And let the cops arrest people they think they have evidence for, even if the prosecutor doesn’t fully agree. Oh, and this:

To catch this mess when it first starts, you need a staffed newsroom that does this every day, that hears about this change when it happens — almost a year ago — and writes about it immediately, before 50 or 60 murder defendants go uncharged and about as many cases are quietly shelved.

Read the post. It’s long, but the man’s a pretty fair writer. You’ll see why he’s blogging this shit. His description of what happened when he brought all this to Bernstein’s attention is worth the slog.

*Mr. Simon emailed to say I misrepresented badly what he wrote. I’m honored to hear from him, and he’s right to a point, but I think it’s an overstatement. Simon wrote of the Sun‘s previous reporting on this matter: “The Baltimore Sun was able to report at points on the complaints of detectives, some of whom have been frustrated getting cases charged.  But the fact that the number of murder defendants had been halved by the new policy went unaddressed.  And the implications of all this — as detailed above — haven’t been fully reported. Again, The Sun still has some hard-working, committed folk, but they are younger and fewer, and they are spread thin across a civic firmament that is, if anything, even more complicated, more self-aggrandizing, and more entrenched.”

Simon did mention the Sun‘s reporting on the matter. I was incorrect to say that he hadn’t. I do think a link to Fenton’s August 2011 piece would have given credit where it was due and would have enhanced Simon’s blog post.