Loiterers vs. law breakers

Public housing: Supreme Court may get Annapolis council off hook on troubling anti-loitering bill.

May 13, 1999

THE ANNAPOLIS City Council can take the easy way -- and possibly the correct way -- out by awaiting the wisdom of the Supreme Court on the constitutionality of anti-loitering laws.

The court is to rule next month on a challenge to an anti-loitering law in Chicago, which in 1992 gave police sweeping power to arrest suspected gang members.

Chicago police may order groups of two or more people to move along if they are standing around "with no apparent purpose" and if an officer "reasonably believes" one of them to be a gang member. Illinois courts have found that the law, which has been used to make 45,000 arrests, violates civil liberties.

A bill in the city of Annapolis raises similar concern. African-American leaders and the American Civil Liberties Union fear uneven enforcement, especially as state and county police face accusations of "racial profiling."

Alderman Herbert H. McMillan may believe that he was responding in good conscience to constituent fears of people hanging around their neighborhoods, particularly parking lots and playgrounds of public housing. But if these loiterers are committing crimes, the proper response is to use existing laws and beef up police patrols.

If, as Mr. McMillan complains, officers are frustrated because they haven't been able to apprehend suspected drug dealers, lowering the bar for arrest isn't the answer. Better police work is.

The alderman's loosely worded bill -- "the totality of the circumstances involved shall be considered" in defining loitering, for example -- does not appear to be a solution. The Supreme Court can help the council know if it's even an option. Meanwhile, police can make residents feel safer and curb criminal activity with a stronger presence, as the state's Hot Spots program has shown.

An anti-loitering law is not the only -- or necessarily the best -- way to help residents regain control of their neighborhoods.

Pub Date: 5/13/99

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