Maryland and Baltimore’s Half-Hearted Criminal Justice System: Three Cheers for Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III

–Richard E. Vatz

Whenever decision-makers make indefensible decisions, the same John McEnroe-copyrighted phrase reflexively comes to mind: “You Cannot Be Serious!”

All my life I have been incredulous at various criminal justice systems’ lack of serious concern for protecting the physical safety of their citizens from criminals, arguably elected officials’ number one obligation.

Often there is a protective sociology that stanches the flow of criticism. In the case of too many violent felons being free on the streets — as is the case in Baltimore — police may have avoided arrests, prosecutors may have avoided prosecution and judges may have avoided tough sentencing. What would be a typical sociological cocoon of protection — all of the three decision-making sources supporting each other unquestioningly.

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Police Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld has raised some hackles among the other two components of the Baltimore law enforcement triangle by supporting, as a citizen, Baltimore State’s Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy’s opponent, Gregg Bernstein, in the city state’s attorney race.

There are two major questions that arise from this lawn sign endorsement: whether it is legal, and whether it is responsible.

It is legal because Bealefeld, according to police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi (in a wonderfully comprehensive report in The Baltimore Sun by Justin Fenton), “won’t be doing any campaign appearances or using department resources or city time to promote Bernstein.”

The endorsement is responsible because it promotes critically needed changes in public policy.

What can police do when, as in the Stephen Pitcairn murder, judges drop the ball serially? What can police do when prosecutors have such a high threshold of sufficient evidence to try a case that when a witness refuses to cooperate but there is a tape of the accused committing the crime, the case goes unprosecuted?

What can the police commissioner do when it is revealed that rape complaints are, as Mr. Fenton also reported, “summarily dismissed by police?”

In the last case, a commissioner can take the blame and stipulate, as Commissioner Bealefeld did, according to the Sun, that “patrol officers are no longer allowed to leave the scene of an alleged sexual assault without writing a report…”

In the first two cases, the mayor or police commissioner can point out that judges and prosecutors need to do their damn job to protect the citizens they are sworn to protect.

For her part, Jessamy has stated her outrage at Bealefeld’s support of Bernstein, but has had no compunction in defiantly stating that her office “will never be a rubber stamp for the police.” Not many substantive public policy implications there, but we know she implies she’s tough.

Police Commissioner Bealefeld’s support of a candidate who claims he will run a more aggressive prosecutor’s office is not the entire answer, but it is a beginning. There will always be some problems, such as weak-kneed juries who get some of their cues from prosecutors.

But no one should be sanguine about the mortal threats to Baltimore and Maryland from the time-dishonored coddling of felonious criminals.

Again, Commissioner Bealefeld’s rhetorical outrage, policy changes and endorsement serve as a warning that some decision-makers are angry enough to act seriously — finally.

–Professor Vatz teaches rhetoric and communication at Towson University

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