Independent unit now investigates deadly use of force incidents in Maryland

The unit is part of a package of police reforms the General Assembly passed this year


By Jessica Anderson
Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE COUNTY, Md. — When a 26-year-old man pursued by police crashed his vehicle in Baltimore County and died, a detective from a new division in the Maryland attorney general’s office, along with members of the state police crash team, was dispatched to the scene.

Two days later, on Oct. 11, investigators from the Independent Investigations Division again headed to Baltimore County, this time after a county officer shot and killed a man who police said was wanted in connection with an early morning robbery at a 7-Eleven.

The cases are the first test for the unit, which along with Maryland State Police, now investigates all deadly uses of force by officers across the state. The change took effect Oct. 1 and is part of a package of police reforms the General Assembly passed this year.

“The reception has generally been really positive. The law enforcement agencies recognize the need for this legislation,” Dana Mulhauser, chief of the division, said in an interview Tuesday.

Several attorneys who have represented relatives of people killed by police said they are watching the unit’s work closely, while the Harford County sheriff has raised concerns about whether the involvement of state investigators could hamper the duty of his office to investigate possible crimes.

Mulhauser declined to discuss her unit’s response to its two cases so far, the first early on Oct. 9 involving Maryland Transportation Authority Police and the second on Monday involving Baltimore County Police, because the investigations are ongoing.

The creation of the unit is part of a broader legislative push following a Minnesota police officer’s murder of George Floyd. It comes as several high-profile Maryland in-custody deaths are under scrutiny, including cases in Baltimore County that led to multimillion-dollar settlements but in which local investigations did not result in charges against police.

In one such case, attorney J. Wyndal Gordon represented the family of Korryn Gaines, a 23-year-old Black woman who was killed and whose son was injured by county officers in 2016. He hopes the division’s work will lead to accountability.

“These cases will be the test. We are certainly looking at it,” Gordon said.

“What you are looking for is accountability that you weren’t getting at the local level,” Gordon said. “We always question the police investigating the police. I think now you have a better chance at getting some answers and justice in the long run.”

The attorney general’s office identified Wednesday those involved in the Baltimore County police shooting in Woodlawn. It said a Lt. Mead, a 25-year veteran of the department assigned to its operations bureau, shot Jovan Singleton, 36, of Baltimore. Authorities did not provide Mead’s first name, but a county salary database lists one police lieutenant with that last name: Gregory M. Mead.

In the fatal crash last weekend, the attorney general’s office said Theodore Jeremenko, a 10-year veteran of the transportation authority police, tried to pull Jawuan Ginyard of Baltimore over after seeing him commit a traffic violation. His uncle, Paul Wallace, said he has questions about Ginyard’s death because his nephew in general was a better driver than the police’s description of what happened.

Mulhauser said the office spent several months preparing for investigations. It’s been hiring staff: Her office has nine employees, and state police have 18 dedicated to these investigations. However, several positions still need to be filled: the attorney general’s office has a job posting up for another investigator for the unit, and one for a spokesperson just closed Oct. 6.

She noted that state police have long been responsible for investigating such cases in more remote or less populated parts of Maryland, where a local agency might not have homicide investigators.

Mulhauser herself has reviewed many deadly use-of-force cases. Before coming to Maryland, she was the founding chief of the Conviction and Incident Review Unit in the office of the prosecuting attorney for St. Louis County, Missouri. The unit reviewed police shootings and cases involving excessive force and misconduct. She also worked in the U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights division for 12 years.

According to a state report, there were 31 deaths involving police in 2019 in Maryland, the latest year for which data is available. Baltimore County had the most that year with eight. The Baltimore Police Department had five, while the Howard County Police Department and the Maryland State Police reported four each.

Mulhauser said her unit, state police and law enforcement agencies around Maryland developed a process to make certain the independent investigations team is the primary investigator on such cases, even as local departments conduct internal probes to decide whether discipline is warranted.

“We’ve tried, as much as we can, to have a process that makes sense,” Mulhauser said.

The division drafted a set of protocols that includes having local agencies call a 24-hour state police hotline in the event of a police-related death. A state police investigator and crime scene technicians are then dispatched to a scene. The independent investigators conduct the investigation and turn over their findings to the local state’s attorney for a decision on whether to charge an officer. Local police departments remain first responders and help secure a scene, evidence and witnesses.

“You don’t want to lose evidence, lose witnesses,” she said. “The entities around the state have been really helpful and recognize this has been shared goal.”

One exception to the protocols is Baltimore City, which remains under a federal consent decree that requires the department to deploy its Special Investigations Response Team to scenes involving uses of deadly force. Mulhasuer said the attorney general’s office has reached a memorandum of understanding with the BPD outlining their collaboration. Raquel Coombs, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, declined to provide a copy, saying it is not a public document.

Regarding the protocols provided to other local agencies, Coombs said the office is “finalizing the process of releasing the protocols to the public.”

Some law enforcement officials have expressed concerns about how the new unit will operate. How are investigations divvied up between the new unit and the local agency? Does a second investigative team hinder the legally required investigation by the attorney general’s unit? What about cases where a person dies days after an encounter with officers?

Mulhauser said the protocols should address some of the concerns. For instance, departments have been instructed to contact state police “anytime there is a likelihood of death,” even if the person is alive at the scene.

Some law enforcement leaders said what happens with the early cases will inevitably result in changes to the process.

“We will all discover things that could have been done differently to improve the investigative process,” Dave Rose, president of the Baltimore County FOP Lodge #4, said Monday.

Rose called for an “after-incident critique” to review how things worked with the unit’s involvement.

Like Gordon, attorney Andrew Freeman represented a family in a county police shooting, with relatives of Eric Sopp winning a $6.5 million settlement Tuesday. Sopp was shot after, police said, he refused to follow their commands and got out of his car on the shoulder of Interstate 83.

Freeman said the state’s attorneys in Maryland’s counties, who previously received reports on police deaths from local departments, were not objective because they must preserve a working relationship with the police agencies.

“Our hope is that an objective investigation from the attorney general, who doesn’t have that sort of relationship, would look at this video and realize there was not justification for this shooting,” Freeman said of future cases.

Not everyone is as optimistic about the changes. The Harford County Sheriff’s Office and county attorney have raised concerns in several letters to the attorney general’s office.

Many sheriffs “are gravely concerned by suggestions that the new law effectuates a complete removal of local law enforcement agencies from the process of investigating these incidents,” Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler wrote Aug. 2.

“Right now, our policy is 100% in accordance with the law that we will handle those shootings just as we have, and we will of course be cooperative,” Gahler said in a recent interview.

State Attorney General Brian Frosh responded that two investigations is not the intent of the law.

“Parallel investigations are generally not in accord with best practices and undermine investigative principles,” Frosh wrote, adding that the law’s “intent that the new OAG unit’s investigation shall be primary.”

Gahler said he must ensure a thorough criminal investigation is completed. He noted that the shooting Monday in Baltimore County, according to police there, resulted from an alleged robbery. If a similar shooting occurred in Harford, Gahler said his office would have a duty to investigate a robbery.

“The public deserve the transparency and the competency of a complete and thorough criminal investigation,” he said.

Harford’s policy still requires deputies to conduct witness interviews, but says the independent investigators can participate “if practical and in the best interest of the investigation.”

The sheriff’s office also says it will hold any evidence, but that [the investigators] will have “unfettered access to all evidence.” The independent investigators can request to transfer evidence to themselves, so long as “that transfer does not hinder other HCSO investigations,” the policy says.

Gahler said he is working to schedule a meeting this month with members of the attorney general’s office to clarify procedures.

“I support what the legislature did, just not how it’s being hijacked. It will take legislative action this next session to do the things to put in [the new unit’s] protocols,” he said.

©2021 Baltimore Sun. Visit baltimoresun.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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