By Ananda Shorey
WASHINGTON- Police brutality cases are rarely prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney in Maryland, where federal officials prosecuted only one of the 177 cases that were referred to them between 1994 and 1998.
An official from the U.S. attorney’s office said the numbers are misleading and that Maryland has one of the “most aggressive, diligent offices dealing with these types of complaints.”
But civil rights leaders said that the numbers paint an accurate picture of the way police brutality is brushed off in the state.
Cases are not prosecuted because the U.S. attorney’s office works with police and therefore does not always tackle police brutality cases aggressively, said the Washington, D.C., director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“All of these guys work together and there is some kind of brotherhood,” said the director, Hilary Shelton, who added that police have a knack for justifying their actions within their departments.
The executive director of the National Black Police Association, Ron Hampton, also said that “there is some bias in the criminal justice system that is shown to favor police regarding these cases.”
The Maryland prosecution statistics were compiled by Capital News Service using data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a data gathering, research and distribution organization at Syracuse University. TRAC collects data from federal law enforcement and regulatory agencies and provides that information to the public.
Police brutality prosecutions were no better in the rest of the country than they were in Maryland, according to the TRAC data. For the five-year period, federal attorneys refused to prosecute 98 percent to 98.7 percent of the cases referred to them nationwide.
Even though the prosecution data comes from the Department of Justice, the Assistant U.S. Attorney for Maryland, Steven Dettelbach, said “the numbers don’t tell the whole story.”
He said when an allegation of police brutality is made, it undergoes a lengthy review process that begins with an FBI investigation. If the FBI determines the case has merit, the bureau alerts the U.S. attorney’s office, which further investigates the case before deciding whether to seek charges or to decline to hear the case.
In fact, the one case that was handled by the U.S. attorney’s office since 1994 came from Prince George’s County, where local officials declined to prosecute an officer who was charged with beating a suspect.
Dettelbach was the prosecutor in that case, in which Prince George’s County Police Officer Timothy Moran was convicted of beating a handcuffed man with a nightstick. Moran had been called to intervene in a property dispute between the victim, Peter Peluso, who suffered cuts and bruises, and a neighbor.
In published reports, U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte sharply criticized county officials for leaving it “to the federal government to pursue these matters” and U.S. Attorney Lynne Battaglia was quoted as saying the “abuse of power by a police officer is a serious federal offense.”
Moran, who resigned from the force after pleading guilty in March 1998, was sentenced to five months in prison and five months of home detention on the felony civil rights charge.
But a spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union, Nicole Gray, said that most brutality cases are rejected by the U.S. attorney’s office because federal prosecutors figure the cases will not go anywhere anyway.
“I think one of the reasons so few cases are prosecuted is that in most criminal cases you have to prove criminal intent, or that the police were reckless, and I think that is really hard to prove,” Gray said. “Unfortunately the other side is (often) dead, so you never get to hear their side of the case.”
Hampton said it is hard for him to believe that prosecutors do not see merit in many of the cases that come before them.
“I think that it is as basic as ABC,” he said. “When these officers do the kind of things they do, they justify it because they say they are doing it in the name of public safety.”
But Shelton said there may be another factor at work in the lack of police prosecutions — fear that officers will seek revenge against those who try to file charges.
“The biggest problem is that people are afraid to complain,” he said. “They know that police officers can carry guns.”
Hampton said the best way to increase trust in officers would be to weed out the bad ones through vigorous prosecution. He said that would increase trust in law enforcement threefold.
“We have proven in this country that we can prosecute bad guys, so why haven’t we been aggressive in prosecuting police?” he asked.