UB President Schmoke discusses upcoming police officer trials

As Baltimore prepares for the start of the trials of the six police officers charged in connection with the in-custody death of Freddie Gray in early October, University of Baltimore President Kurt Schmoke says unfortunately, this isn’t the first time he’s seen a dramatic increase in crime since the end of April.

“When I was Mayor, for 10 years we had over 300 homicides a year relating to the height of the crack epidemic, and the (gang) wars over turf,” said Schmoke, who was Mayor of Baltimore from 1987 to 1999.

“What’s happened more recently is kind of opportunistic crimes. I do know from talking with some police officers that gangs, which did not exist to a great extent in Baltimore in the last century are prevalent now, and there’s been a street bat- tle among gangs, and there’s been a sense that they have greater op- portunity because the police are not as aggressive in their enforcement activity, at least in May, and that continued a little bit in the summer.” He added that the homicide rate in the city also jumped in the early 1970s, but fell dramatically after the R. Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center opened at the Uni- versity of Maryland Medical Center because more shooting victims were being saved.

In May, a week and a half after the rioting on April 27, Schmoke spoke with Bryan Nehman of 1090 WBAL-AM, and explained that it’s extremely difficult to get con- victions of police officers who are accused of criminal wrongdoing. Schmoke told The Post that there’s a range of opinions in the public about police.

“Everybody knows that it’s important to have a good police depart- ment in order to maintain safety, but there’s a wide range of experiences. Some people believe very strongly, or are supportive of the police in all they do. Other people are very skeptical of the police, so it depends on your encounter and the history of your encounters with police.”

Schmoke explained what usually happens when a jury is selected for a criminal case against a police officer.

“You normally, in these criminal cases, get a jury that’s a mix of the communities of Baltimore, from the wealthiest to the poorest, and when you get that mix together, a lot of folks are willing to give police the benefit of the doubt in making quick judgments on the street, and they don’t want to second-guess the police, unless it’s a situation in which somebody that they know has been injured.” Schmoke says those jury makeups often lead to hung juries and acquittals, not convictions.

In the Gray case, Schmoke says good defense attorneys would “put the victim on trial” by bringing up his past criminal record, what he was doing on the street at the time of the now-infamous confrontation, and even past encounters the accused officers may have had with Gray. Jurors would then have to take all that information into account in determining whether or not the officers’ actions were reasonable at the time. Schmoke says during his time as State’s Attorney for Baltimore City from 1982 to 1987, he prosecuted a case where an officer was charged in the shooting death of a motorcyclist in Northeast Baltimore.

“The police officer and the motorcyclist got into a fight on Harford Road near Clifton Park, and it escalated, and the officer shot this man, and the question was, was it just self-defense, or was it a heated argument? Did the officer have time to step away?” The case went to a grand jury, and even heard testimony from the accused officer, which Schmoke says is unusual. The grand jury indicted the officer, but when the case went to trial, the jury was split evenly, with the six white jurors voting in favor of the officer, while the six black jurors voted against him. When the case was tried a second time, the jury acquitted the officer.

There’s been plenty of controversy surrounding the Gray case. One subject of controversy has been State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby.

Attorneys for the accused officers have leveled serious accusations against her, ranging from conflicts of interest (her relationship with Gray family attorney Billy Murphy, and her husband, Councilman Nick Mosby, who represents West Baltimore) to withholding evidence from the defense. The defense filed a motion to have Mosby be rescued as the prosecutor in the trials, but that motion was denied by Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Barry Williams. President Schmoke agrees with Judge Williams’ ruling.

I think Judge Williams has been correct in saying that if there was anything that was unprofessional, that is a matter that should go to the Ethics Commission. Her conduct hasn’t risen to the point of disqualifying her or her office from handling this case…but overall, I think she has made decisions based on the facts as she knows it, but I still believe it’s going to be difficult to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that these officers were engaged in criminal activity.”

Another defense motion that was denied by Judge Williams on September 10th was a motion for a change of venue to move the trial out of Baltimore City because of the publicity surrounding the case and concerns expressed by defense attorneys about whether or not their clients can get a fair trial in the city. President Schmoke feels that decision was only a tentative one.

“That is, that he was saying based on what’s in front of him right now, he can’t reach the conclusion that these officers can’t get a fair trial in Baltimore,” Schmoke said. “I think during the course of jury selection, when you start asking people questions, that’s the point where the judge will make another decision about whether there’s too much bias one way or another.” Schmoke explained that people who are summoned for jury duty in criminal cases are asked very probing questions to determine if they have any biases. He said that following jury selection, defense attorneys will likely refile the motion for a change of venue.

In September, former Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said during a forum at St. Mary’s College that officers “took a knee” and decided to stop proactively policing the city after the officers were indicted because they were worried about getting into trouble if they got into a physical confrontation. Schmoke agrees with that sentiment Batts expressed.

“I do believe that there has been a very brief but telling slowdown in some police enforcement action after the indictment of the six police officers, and I think that has hurt the situation and allowed some things to get out of control in the neighborhoods,” Schmoke said. He feels that the police are now actively back to doing their jobs. He feels that the city’s recent moves of creating a “War Room” and bringing in agents from five different federal agencies to partner with the police department’s Homicide Unit are staring to pay off.

“I think the new police strategy is beginning to turn the tide, and hopefully we’ll see reductions (in crime) going forward as we move into the fall and the winter,” Schmoke said. As an “Anchor In- stitution” in Baltimore, he says the university is reaching out to the Police Department to help improve relations between officers and Balti- more’s minority communities.

“Some of our professors (in the law school and the College of Public Affairs’ Criminal Justice program) have been working with the police department on improved training,” Schmoke said. “We’d like to get more senior police officers taking our leadership courses. We have some professors who are experts in those areas, and so we’ve been reaching out to the department to try to offer our services there.” He called the University’s new “Divided Baltimore” course a step in the right direction to get students, faculty and residents alike to talk about how the city got to where it is now, and where it’ll go in the future.