Loitering proposal draws a crowd

Opponents say bill gives police latitude to harass blacks

June 22, 1999|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

A crowd of more than 80 people -- most of them black -- showed up at Annapolis City Hall last night to comment on an anti-loitering bill. The proposal has so angered leaders in the black community that some have called for the ouster of the alderman who wrote it.

Designed as a tool against drug dealers, the bill would rewrite the definition of "public space" to give police officers the power to disperse anyone loitering on public housing sidewalks. Police currently have no jurisdiction over certain sidewalks because they are owned by the Annapolis Housing Authority and are private property.

Some who turned out last night supported the bill.

Since Alderman Herbert H. McMillan, a Ward 5 Republican, introduced the measure last month, black leaders in Annapolis, the Anne Arundel chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union have railed against it.

They say the bill would give police "carte blanche" to harass all blacks standing on street corners, and a citizens' group says it has enough signatures to force a recall election of McMillan.

"As Americans, we have a constitutional right to stand in public places," ACLU Staff Counsel Dwight Sullivan said last night, pointing to the Supreme Court's recent decision to strike down a Chicago loitering law aimed at gangs. "If police have probable cause to believe someone is engaging in a drug offense, they shouldn't shoo that person off into a different corner; they should arrest them."

Some Neighborhood Watch block captains who urged the city council to pass the bill argued that police are often hindered in arresting drug suspects on public housing property even after residents call to report a crime.

Susan Bailey, a block captain in Spa Cove, said Neighborhood Watch leaders have long been frustrated by limited police authority to arrest loiterers suspected of drug dealing.

By the time police respond to a resident's call, Bailey said, dealers have often stopped their illegal activities.

Annapolis law allows police to arrest loiterers only if they are impeding pedestrians or traffic. "Right now, there's not enough on the books to help us," said Bailey.

McMillan says he crafted the bill in response to complaints from Neighborhood Watch leaders, who two weeks ago unanimously voted to support McMillan's measure. About 12 Neighborhood Watch representatives attended last night's meeting to support the bill.

Rene Swafford, representing the local NAACP, drew the most emotional response.

"There are many documented examples of African-Americans being subjected to selective detention or prosecution due to unfettered discretion in the hands of law enforcement officials," she said. "For example racial profiling which allows police to use traffic stops as a pretext to search for evidence of drugs have resulted in many African-Americans being unjustly detained."

William H. Peters, a block captain of a Ward 5 community speaking on behalf of all Neighborhood Watch leaders, urged the city council to note that McMillan drafted the bill in response to the concerns of the block captains.

"We do not want to violate the rights of individuals and do not believe that this ordinance does that," Peters said. "This bill is drug-specific, and the current loitering law is not."

Sullivan and Lewis Bracy of the Maryland Forum of African-American Leaders attacked a portion of the bill that would allow police to ask loiterers who have been convicted of drug offenses to move along.

Said Sullivan: "Under this standard, Paul McCartney, Tim Allen and Marion Barry would not have the right to stand still in public in the city of Annapolis."

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