Anti-loitering proposal draws Annapolis protest

Planned city ordinance unfairly targets blacks, some leaders, ACLU say

May 10, 1999|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

African-American community leaders and the American Civil Liberties Union are protesting an Annapolis alderman's proposal to curb loitering related to drug activity, saying such a law could prompt police officers to target and search all blacks standing on street corners.

Alderman Herbert H. McMillan, a Ward 5 Republican, is expected to introduce a bill at tonight's city council meeting to tighten loitering laws by redefining public spaces to include public housing property and areas such as parking lots and playgrounds that may be privately owned but are open to the public.

Police say the measure should help officers who currently cannot approach loiterers suspected of drug dealing on public housing community sidewalks, which are the property of the Annapolis Housing Authority. The housing authority is not part of city government, so its property is not considered public.

Harassment predicted

"The problem with Mr. McMillan's plan is that it's going to come down to harassment," said Lewis Bracy, communications director of the Maryland Forum of African-American Leaders. "Some police will be overzealous and end up harassing any African-American male standing on the street corner. We're going to be targeted."

Dwight Sullivan, ACLU staff counsel, said he is working with African-American leaders in Annapolis to stage a rally against the ordinance May 17.

Those reactions have puzzled McMillan.

"Why are they assuming it's directed toward African-Americans?" asked McMillan, who is white.

"I haven't mentioned color in my ordinance," he said. "To me, it's ironic because most of the people who have urged me to come forward with this ordinance are African-American. I'm doing this to protect African-American constituents, not to target them."

Repeated complaints

McMillan began work on the bill six months ago after hearing neighborhood watch coordinators repeatedly complain that police could not arrest suspected drug dealers for loitering in privately owned open spaces.

Angela Haste, a neighborhood watch block coordinator in Parole, said she and her peers in the program have wanted tighter loitering laws for a long time.

Haste, who is African-American, said she doesn't see any racist undertones in the McMillan bill.

"The community at large wants it," said Haste. "It would discourage the loitering, which often festers into other things. We're embracing that; we're for no loitering in general."

McMillan's proposal specifies that in deciding whether loitering is drug-related, police officers can use criteria that "may include, but shall not be limited to: that such a person is repeatedly engaging in conversations with the drivers and/or passengers of vehicles, distributing small objects to other persons."

Under the measure, loiterers who don't move along after a police officer has asked them to do so can be arrested.

`Carte blanche'

Sullivan said he has a problem with the words "may include, but shall not be limited to."

"That means the police officer can use any other factor that the police officer wants to," Sullivan said.

"It really gives them carte blanche to arrest almost anyone," he said. "What we've seen is that, time and time again, when police agencies are given wide discretion in the way in which they execute drug laws, they target African-Americans, they target Latinos. There's a very real danger that the way that this is executed would be racially discriminatory."

Sullivan also argued against the section of McMillan's bill that he said implies that a "known unlawful drug user, possessor or seller" who loiters can be arrested on suspicion of loitering for drug-related activity.

"One does not forfeit one's Fourth Amendment right to be protected from unreasonable searches and seizures for life upon being convicted of a drug offense," Sullivan said. "That's what this statute does."

Robert Eades, an Annapolis resident planning the rally with Sullivan, has been convicted of drug possession and fears he would be targeted by police whenever he stands on street corners to chat with friends.

Effect on teen-agers

But he's more concerned that the law would bar teen-agers in public housing communities from a common pastime -- hanging out on the sidewalk and chatting.

"In public housing communities, there's nothing for teen-age children to do," Eades said. "They happen to meet on the corner, hang out and talk and laugh and giggle, but they're not drug dealers. This is a tool that's going to be used to harass and keep the young black man off the street."

McMillan said he looks forward to discussing the bill with Sullivan and other opponents and will be speaking to neighborhood watch coordinators about it at their monthly meeting tomorrow night at the Annapolis City Police Department.

"There's nothing for me to gain personally by introducing this ordinance," McMillan said. "I don't have someone selling drugs outside my house, but a lot of people in my ward do, and this helps them.

"Doing nothing to stop it because some [drug dealers] are in African-American neighborhoods and my own white neighborhood is safe would be racist," he said. "All children regardless of color should be able to live and play in safe, decent neighborhoods."

Pub Date: 5/10/99

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