Prince George's prosecutor moves quickly to make changes

By Ruben Castaneda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 1, 2011; 11:55 PM

Angela Alsobrooks heard a consistent message as she crossed Prince George's County during her campaign for the state's attorney's office: We want you to deal with violent offenders, but what we really care about are car break-ins, vandalism and burglaries.

Now Alsobrooks, who is to be sworn in to the post Monday, says she will increase the office's emphasis on such crimes, which affect thousands of residents for whom gangs, the drug trade and violent crime may seem distant.

"These are crimes that cause people to feel uncomfortable in their neighborhoods," Alsobrooks said in an interview. "We're going to focus on quality-of-life crimes."

To do so, she said, she plans a reorganization of the office, which has 70 prosecutors and dozens of support staffers.

She plans to initiate "community prosecutions" by assigning prosecutors to each of the county's five police districts. In addition to their courtroom duties, she said, these prosecutors will reach out to residents, learn about crime trends and use social services and job training to help those who need it.

She intends to try some cases herself - and drop in on trials to monitor her prosecutors, which Circuit Court Judge C. Philip Nichols Jr. applauds. "You can't lead from the back of the room," he said. "You have to lead from the front."

The job is a challenging one. County prosecutors typically handle 9,500 new Circuit Court cases - primarily felonies, such as murders, serious assaults, rapes and robberies - annually. In juvenile court, prosecutors take on about 2,000 new cases a year involving offenses ranging from auto theft to serious assaults and, occasionally, murder.

Alsobrooks is taking over at a time when law enforcement in the county is contending with damaging revelations and perceptions that can complicate prosecutors' jobs.

In November, federal agents arrested two county officers in connection with a larger federal corruption probe in Prince George's. Former county executive Jack B. Johnson and his wife, Leslie, were arrested by the FBI as part of that investigation on charges of tampering with evidence and destruction of evidence. The officers were charged with guarding shipments of untaxed cigarettes and alcohol. A third officer was arrested on cocaine trafficking charges.

Also in November, former police chief Roberto L. Hylton said 46 county officers were either suspended or assigned to administrative duties for violating police rules or allegedly committing crimes. Those issues influence some county jurors.

Alsobrooks must win back the public's confidence while holding officers accountable for criminal misconduct and maintaining a working relationship with the police department. She is confident she can. "There is a need to partner with the police department," she said.

When it comes to police misconduct, Alsobrooks said, "We just won't tolerate criminal conduct, no matter who commits it.

"Police officers have said to me they don't like bad cops either," Alsobrooks said.

And by spending more time in the community, Alsobrooks said, prosecutors can win the trust of residents who may someday be jurors or witnesses. "Trust is key," she said.

Alsobrooks was born and raised in Prince George's and graduated from Benjamin Banneker Academic High School. She went to Duke University and the University of Maryland law school. She was an assistant prosecutor and also executive director of the Prince George's County Revenue Authority.

Alsobrooks's predecessor, Glenn F. Ivey, compiled a mixed record during his eight years on the job. He is credited with increasing the office's efforts to fight economic crimes such as fraud and theft, and his prosecutors won convictions against two county police officers in cases involving the use of force, something no Prince George's state's attorney had been able to accomplish in at least 12 years.

But there were missteps, too. One defendant, a high school dropout charged with first-degree murder, represented himself in court and was acquitted of all charges.

During a 13-month span in 2006 and 2007, murder charges against 12 defendants never made it to a jury, primarily because of problems with government witnesses.

Defense attorney Antoini M. Jones said he has won acquittals in felony cases in which he knew the facts of the case better than the prosecutor. In some cases, Jones said, the prosecutor met with the investigating officer for the first time on the first day of the trial.

Alsobrooks plans to meet with her prosecutors and support staff early Tuesday to distribute a mission statement: Be professional, prepared, treat people with respect and do whatever it takes to get the job done, even if that means coming in early or staying late.

"I think we have everything we need to succeed," Alsobrooks said. "We've got smart people working here, and I've got a good relationship with the county executive."

That would be Rushern L. Baker III (D), who was sworn in Dec. 6. Alsobrooks (D) will succeed Ivey, whose two terms coincided with those of Johnson. (Ivey did not seek reelection; he endorsed Alsobrooks during her campaign.)

"I am looking forward to working collaboratively [with Alsobrooks] on initiatives that will reduce recidivism and deter crime in Prince George's County," Baker said.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company