Do You Know This Man?
Gregg Bernstein will soon be Baltimore's state's attorney. Get to know him
Published: December 15, 2010
Defense attorney Gregg Bernstein spent $11.14 in campaign funds for each of the 31,703 votes Democrats cast for him in defeating longtime Baltimore City State’s Attorney Patricia Jessamy in the September primary election. At first glance, this would seem to indicate that he spent wisely to become well known and popular, and that each of those $11.14 voters has some sense of who Bernstein is. But they make up only 11 percent of the city’s registered Democrats and approximately 6.5 percent of Baltimore’s adult population.
Thus, even as Bernstein is sworn in on Jan. 3 as one of the city’s most critical crime-fighters, it’s a safe bet that he’s an unknown to hundreds of thousands of city residents. The press and the people can’t really be blamed for this lack of insight: Bernstein was a late-arriving challenger with a low public profile who mounted a nine-week campaign to victory.
In an effort to cure this knowledge deficit, the tape recorders ran as Bernstein talked with City Paper on Nov. 30. Personal details were revealed: He’s a big basketball fan; he rides his bicycle a lot; he’s a fan of the music of Bonnie Prince Billy, Elvis Costello, and Joni Mitchell; he watches Mad Men; his favorite movie directors are Martin Scorsese, Kevin Smith, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Pedro Almodóvar; and he likes to read the fiction of Cormac McCarthy, Jonathan Franzen, and Ann Beattie. But Bernstein mostly talked about what he’s bringing to the job and what he hopes to accomplish. Here’s the choicest stuff.
City Paper: When you think of the criminal-justice community in Baltimore, do you see yourself as an insider or an outsider?
Gregg Bernstein: I think that I am an insider in the sense that I understand how the system works. I understand the processes that are involved in the Baltimore City Circuit Court system. I know many of the judges and prosecutors and defense attorneys. So in that respect I would view myself as an insider. But I think I’m also an outsider in the sense that I haven’t spent my career in the Circuit Court, so there’s going to be a learning curve associated with that.
CP: It may be blunt to call it baton-passing, but basically it’s been people from inside the office taking over for their predecessors for a long time now. It went from [former state’s attorney Kurt] Schmoke [who was elected in 1982] to [Stuart] Simms to Jessamy.
GB: In that respect, I’m certainly an outsider. I think it’s one of the reasons why we won and generated so much enthusiasm. I think a lot of people perceive, as you put it, this passing of the baton that’s gone on through three prior administrations. Now you’ve got somebody who’s literally coming in fresh.
CP: Is there someone you particularly respect who was state’s attorney?
GB: I have a lot of respect for Charlie Moylan [who held the office from 1964 to 1970]. He attracted really talented people to work there. Some of the leading criminal lawyers, trial lawyers of the day, worked under Moylan and then later under Milton Allen, when he became state’s attorney. And I respect Mayor Schmoke in the sense that he came into the office the way that I came into the office—by beating an established incumbent against odds. He came in fresh and tried to instill new ideas, new programs, which are the kinds of things that I’m going to do.
CP: The talent that you hope to attract to the office, is it coming into shape even before you take office?
GB: Well, I’m getting a lot of résumés. These things kind of feed on themselves. If we can implement some of the changes I talk about, in terms of training, technology, working more effectively with law enforcement, that in turn builds the reputation of the office, which attracts more qualified people to apply. We are going to institute a program using young associates from some of the larger law firms for six months, nine months, a year, to work as state’s attorneys, trying cases. It gets trial training for young associates for the big firms, and it gets me bodies. It’s something I talked a lot about during the campaign, and people have been enthusiastic about it.
CP: What can Annapolis do to help your job?
GB: The first is through grant funding and helping us to develop the training funding and the technology, and even hire assistants. I met with [Gov. Martin O’Malley] since the election, and he pledges his support. I recognize that his hands are somewhat tied in these budget-constrained times, but at the same time, it’s nice to know that you’ve got a friend in Annapolis. The other piece is legislation, and I don’t perceive myself as having a quote-unquote legislative agenda in this first session. You need to plan it, do your homework very early on, and not just write a bill and have somebody introduce it. It’s certainly not something we’re going to pursue, at least in the first year.
CP: Does Baltimore have an organized crime problem?
GB: Well, you can ask me that question a year from now when you want to interview me and do the scorecard story. I’m not in there yet. I’m not privy to the intelligence.
CP: But as a citizen, you must have some sense. Is it truly a disorganized network of freelancers that creates the havoc on the streets? Or is someone benefitting from that havoc and apparent disorganization, someone who’s invested in keeping things the way they are—and things have stayed the same for a long time? Do you have any thoughts on that?
GB: I don’t. I just don’t. I’ll have a much better understanding of the mentality of what may or may not be there once I’ve been in office for a while. I’m not trying to duck it, I just don’t know. I certainly think that you need to follow the trail, so to speak. You don’t want to stop at the corner boys. If you can use that case to take you up the chain, then you are going to follow it wherever it’s going to lead. I’m certainly going to do that. Where it takes me, I don’t know.
CP: In addition to being the first state’s attorney who would not have had a baton passed since Schmoke beat [William] Swisher [in 1982], you’re also the first white guy since Swisher. What kind of challenges does you being a white guy present in being the top prosecutor?
GB: Public safety is a fundamental right that transcends race, socioeconomic background, gender. People have a right to feel safe and secure in their homes, and I don’t think they particularly care about the color of the skin or the gender or where the prosecutor comes from, as long as it is someone who is going to try to effectuate change and make people more safe in their homes and their neighborhoods.
I am very sensitive to the fact that many people in the African-American community get nervous, for lack of a better word, when they see a white man as the chief prosecutor for the city. They become concerned. Are we going to go back to the days of zero tolerance, under the prior administrations? Are African-Americans going to be disproportionately arrested and prosecuted? I think it’s my job as state’s attorney to be out in the community and to make it clear to people throughout Baltimore that the decisions that I make from a prosecutions standpoint are not going to be racially based, they are not going to be socioeconomically based, they are just going to be based on the facts. And I’m going to work very hard at doing that.
CP: What did you take from your four or five years as a federal prosecutor in Maryland about 20 years ago? Those were different times, though the conduct is largely the same, and you were dealing with federal statutes instead of state ones.
GB: You’re right, they’re different times. Also, you’re doing different kinds of cases than we’re going to be doing. The two most important takeaways were, number one, I learned how to be a trial lawyer when I was at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and that will help me to help my assistants become better prosecutors. The other big thing is, I learned how important it is to work with law enforcement in building these cases. This is not about getting in bed with law enforcement, because it is important for us to maintain our distance because, unfortunately, there are going to be bad cops, and if there are, you’re going to have to take action against them. But that shouldn’t deter you from working closely with [the police].
CP: You are going to get rid of the do-not-call list [of police officers deemed too untrustworthy to testify in court, which has been maintained by Jessamy’s office]. How are you going to know that you can trust the cops that you do work with, if you don’t have this do-not-call list?
GB: Instances will arise where allegations will be made about their credibility, that they lied in the report about what they saw. When that happens, we need to work with the command structure and investigate it together and to try to understand what happened, and then make a decision about what we can do on a going-forward basis. But not just put them on a list. In Los Angeles, they have a mechanism where they give the officers due-process rights, which is not happening here, which is one of the problems I had with the do-not-call list—it makes you like judge, jury, and executioner. So they have a system where, when they have that kind of allegation, they notify the officer, the officer has a chance to respond and work it out internally, and then you make a decision about what you are going to do on a going-forward basis. I think that’s a more rational way to deal with that.
How do you trust the officers? Well, first of all, if you are working more proactively and closely with them in the first place, you get a better understanding of the good ones and the bad ones and where you have to draw the line. We are going to help with the training, in terms of teaching officers the importance of being clear and concise in their reports and not exaggerating and the like. Helping them testify—teaching them to be better witnesses in the courtroom, how to be more prepared. I’m not going to interfere with their training involving investigative techniques, because that’s what they do. I don’t want to step on toes there. But where we can help is how they present themselves in the courtroom.
Finally, we’re giving some thought to imposing a community prosecution model, where we will divide the city into zones and match them up with police districts. When you do that, you’ve got state’s attorneys in each of the zones working with the same officers all the time, more closely. And then you get a better feel for good ones, bad ones, things of that nature. And I think that will go a long way to not only improving relations, but at least giving the prosecutors a better understanding of the officers and whether some are not truthful.
CP: Your office has white-collar statutes, and you have long been a white-collar criminal-defense attorney. Do you intend to ratchet up white-collar and public-corruption enforcement?
GB: The office has an economic crimes unit that does prosecute white-collar offenses. Before I make a determination about the degree to which I’d like that unit to ratchet up its cases, I need to have a better understanding of what we’re doing now on the other types of crime, and the resources that are available. In a lot of ways, it’s kind of like a triage approach. I feel that there are a lot of things that are broken in the state’s attorney’s office and in the criminal justice system. I need to get a handle on those things, because I think that impacts more directly on most people. Once we’ve done that, I think then we can really start focusing on so-called white-collar offenses.
If we were a crime-free city and we were sitting around looking for something to do, it would be great to do a public-corruption case. But that’s just not the reality. I look around and I see that, well, there’s a state prosecutor, there’s the U.S. attorney, there’s the attorney general. I’ve got to be focused on what’s going to be happening day-to-day, at least at the beginning. If you get a case that involves an elected official, it is certainly something I’d be interested in. But it becomes an issue of how you allocate your resources. Who is best equipped to handle that kind of case? I have to be a realist. But certainly once we get a handle on the violent crime and make Baltimore safe, we can press those other issues.
CP: How do you maintain some optimism that there is a way to bring these crime numbers down by bringing effective prosecutions?
GB: Obviously, I wouldn’t have run if I didn’t think that I could make a difference. I just believe strongly that if you have well-trained prosecutors with the technology they need and the investigative resources to make good presentations in the courtroom by working cooperatively with the police, you’re going to make a difference. Once you start to do that, people start to believe in you and believe in what your office is capable of doing. Now, does that sound like political rhetoric? I hope not. It’s what I believe and what we’re going to try to do. As you know, I am not a politician. This is not about higher office. This is not about a stepping stone to something else. I just want to get in there, try to do the best job I can, and try to make Baltimore a safer place.
CP: What do you want people to know about you, now that they’ve invested in you?
GB: I am going to spend all my waking energy and hours trying to get the job done. I’m going to roll up my sleeves and work hard to make the state’s attorney’s office more effective and prosecute these violent repeat offenders. That’s number one. Number two, I think people should understand that I am not about locking everybody up. It’s not about zero tolerance. That doesn’t work and didn’t work, and we’re still feeling some of the repercussions of that policy in terms of the relationship between the police and citizens. My view is, for first-time nonviolent offenders—or second-time nonviolent offenders—who show that their crime is a function of a severe drug addiction, or it is just some small offense, we’ve got to find a way to provide alternatives not only to incarceration, but to conviction. We need to figure out ways to move those cases out of the system in a way that doesn’t have a negative impact on the community.
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