Montgomery County State's Attorney Andrew L. Sonner (D) plans to send his prosecutors to the streets beginning today in an effort to develop closer ties to merchants, residents and the cop on the beat.
The project, believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, is a radical departure from the traditional role of prosecutors as courtroom strategists.
But Sonner, who has been in office 20 years and ran unopposed for reelection this year, said a new approach is needed. "Arrests alone will not stem the crime problem," he said. "Prosecution should be the last resort in some cases."
Sonner's plan, based on a concept called "neighborhood-based prosecution," will assign prosecutors to districts throughout the county and ask them to become more visible in communities through regular visits to police stations, schools, chambers of commerce and business offices.
Sonner said the plan could reduce court caseloads if lawyers assist police in cutting the number of unnecessary charges.
But there are doubters. Some of Sonner's prosecutors are quietly unenthusiastic about the plan, and a county police union leader said the reorganization is "nothing more than a public relations gimmick." It also is seen as an attempt by Sonner to expand his control over law enforcement in the county.
"Sonner is not the type of person who should have any influence in the police department," said Walter Bader, president of Fraternal Order of Police Montgomery Lodge 35, which represents about 800 members. "He's a prosecutor who should stick to his job."
The union's leaders say they believe Sonner might have expanded power because of his close ties to Neal Potter, the longtime County Council member who is favored to win the executive race in November. Sonner was among a small circle of key advisers to Potter in his upset victory over incumbent Sidney Kramer in the Democratic primary.
Sonner denied that there are ulterior motives behind his plan. "It's just good government," he said. "There is not just one method of solving crime problems. We can't just do things by rote processing through the courts."
In many ways, Sonner's plan is a spinoff of community policing, a buzz phrase for putting more officers on the street and working closer with communities to prevent crime.
A strong backer of community policing, Sonner said he's unhappy about the slow, piecemeal implementation of the concept in Montgomery.
Police Chief Donald E. Brooks said he has appointed a committee to study wider uses of community policing. Brooks, who has come under fire from the police union in recent months for equipment shortages and what the union says is lackluster leadership, said he did not view Sonner's plan as a threat to his two-year-old administration.
"Mr. Sonner enjoys a different way of doing business than I do," Brooks said. "He can move more rapidly than I can," he added, citing budget constraints and labor unions.
Prosecutors in the Washington area and throughout the country have varying opinions about neighborhood-based prosecution.
"If someone is off at a police substation communing with the community, who's going to put on the cases?" said Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. (D).
Legal observers have other concerns. "It can create possible conflicts," said J. Theodore Wieseman, Montgomery's public defender. "Lawyers should not get too close to police officers. It's important to maintain separation."
Under Sonner's reorganization plan, about 35 prosecutors in the Circuit Court division will be assigned to the same areas as the county's four police district stations. Prosecutors will be encouraged to recommend solutions to recurring crimes, such as increased lighting and additional police officers in neighborhoods plagued by muggings, Sonner said.
Until recently, neighborhood-based prosecution was merely an academic theory, said Stephen Goldsmith, Indianapolis's chief prosecutor and one of the pioneers of the concept. Goldsmith, who praised Sonner's plan as "a wave of the future," said the idea has been debated for several years at seminars sponsored by Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
But he said that widespread acceptance of Sonner's plan could be difficult. "Most prosecutors view their purpose as good lawyers, not neighborhood advocates," he said.
Backers say the concept is activist prosecution. "It's not the prosecutor's job to sit back and wait for cases, but to use the prosecutor's authority and power to help a community defend itself against crime and criminal disorder," said Zachary Tumin, a Harvard research fellow and former staff member in the district attorney's office in Brooklyn, N.Y.