Police to begin ticketing in Oct. Limited experiment targets minor crimes in three districts

September 18, 1996|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

In an experiment aimed at reclaiming city neighborhoods troubled by crime, police in three parts of Baltimore soon will begin ticketing people who drink in public or loiter on street corners.

The October initiative will target petty crimes blamed for eroding the social fabric of communities -- transgressions that have almost become an afterthought for police strained by more serious lawlessness.

The city's police chief first announced the crackdown this month, but delayed its implementation to confer with other top law enforcement officials who were worried about an overburdened court system being inundated with thousands of new defendants.

Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier agreed to scale back the initiative after an hourlong closed meeting yesterday with State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy and District Court Administrative Judge Ellen T. Rinehardt.

Officers will start writing citations for the less-serious crimes Oct. 15. Each summons will require the lawbreaker to appear in court or face arrest.

Despite unanswered questions on how many new defendants will flood the court system, officials decided yesterday to go ahead and try the program in three of the city's nine police districts.

"What we don't know is how many citations we will issue and how many will appear on the court docket," Frazier said. "What we want is a system that works." Officials plan to expand the initiative citywide in February.

Jessamy said the districts -- Eastern, Northeastern and Southeastern -- were chosen because they represent a diverse cross section of the city. They encompass both high- and low-crime neighborhoods, middle-class, business and tourist districts. Eastern District has the highest crime rate in the city.

"This will empower police officers to more expeditiously deal with the quality-of-life issues," Frazier said after the meeting. "Officers will have more time to spend in their communities and it better serves the city."

Zero-tolerance debate

The new policy comes after much public debate over so-called zero tolerance, a law enforcement practice in which officers take action against every infraction, no matter how trivial, in an effort to show criminals that nothing is being overlooked.

City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III and 3rd District Councilman Martin O'Malley organized a council delegation to New York City last month to pressure Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Frazier to implement the same zero-tolerance methods that resulted in that city's significant drop in crime.

Overall, crime in New York and Baltimore dropped last year. But Baltimore's homicide rate -- an undeniable measure of violence here -- remains terrifyingly high while New York's dropped 25 percent.

Frazier rejected yesterday the idea of zero tolerance as a "buzzword that means you set up radar and ticket everyone doing 26 in a 25. It is one iota away from harassment and discrimination."

But the chief said his officers should be closer to "zero tolerance then we are," and he emphasized that his plan offers more discretion for officers to use their own judgments in when and how to crack down.

He said that going after every conceivable infraction would take a cooperative effort from every law enforcement institution working in the city. "To lay zero tolerance on the Police Department's doorstep is like trying to push a tennis ball through a garden hose," he said.

Trial period

At yesterday's meeting, the law enforcement officials said they will use the trial period to determine whether the influx of new cases can be handled by current staffing and if the jail can accommodate more inmates.

O'Malley, a strong supporter of zero tolerance, said yesterday that Frazier "can call the program an ice-cream sundae, as long as it dramatically reduces crime like we saw in New York. I'm glad he's moving in this direction."

City officials have selected about 15 crimes for the initiative, but Jessamy would not release the complete list because each needs to be reviewed by the law office. Initially, the Police Department had hoped to have a battery of 30 petty crimes.

Jessamy said the 15 infractions will include littering, loitering, disorderly conduct, urinating in public, solicitation for prostitution, public consumption of alcohol, petty theft and disturbing the peace. Convictions in some carry small fines or short prison stays; in others, those found guilty could spend up to 18 months in jail.

Officers have always had the option of citing rather than arresting a suspect in certain crimes, but the practice has been used only sparingly. Police commanders say that officers are reluctant to make arrests for crimes such as drinking a beer in public because it isn't worth spending up to four or five hours processing the arrest.

No-shows at court

But by issuing a citation, the officer can deal with the problem and remain on patrol. People who get cited will receive a summons in the mail ordering them to court. If they don't show, a warrant will be issued for their arrest.

Handling the thousands of new cases and possible arrests will not be simple.

In New York, nearly 75 percent of people issued citations failed to show up in court on their scheduled court dates. And in Baltimore, Rinehardt said that 80 percent of those cited for not paying fares on mass transit buses don't show.

"This is hard to predict," Rinehardt said, adding that initially, the program should not cost more money or require additional hires. "This is an experiment for three months to work out all the glitches so we know what we are doing in February."

Officials said statistics will constantly be monitored and officers taught how to legally write the citations.

"Training will be the No. 1 priority," Jessamy said. "We want to assure that the cases are prosecuted in the most efficient manner possible with the outcome being what the public deserves."

Pub Date: 9/18/96

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