If city anti-loitering bill has support, where is it?

Comment

September 26, 1999|By NORRIS WEST

ALDERMAN Herbert McMillan says his anti-loitering bill in the Annapolis City Council has taken an unfair pounding in the media, including in this column.

Mr. McMillan has stood squarely behind his proposal in spite of a Supreme Court ruling this year that banned a similar measure in Chicago; in spite of concerns from African-Americans that it gives police too much power, and in spite of silence by those who supposedly support it.

He has amended the bill to limit its reach to areas that want drug-free zones, but opponents feel it would give police carte blanche to arrest innocent young black men along with the bad guys in public housing developments. The legislation touches a sensitive nerve among African-Americans concerned about racial profiling.

There is reason for concern.

Profiling exists, and innocent people -- innocent black people -- get caught unfairly when a wide net is cast. So African Americans are skeptical of policies that could open the door to abuse.

I've met people in one public housing development who are afraid of drug dealing but who fear increased police power even more.

Mr. McMillan is correct in saying that he has some support in the black community for his bill, which gives police the authority to arrest or move loiterers off private properties such as housing developments and shopping centers.

The depth of this support remains in question, however.

Thus far, opponents appear to outweigh supporters by a large margin. In a public hearing on the bill, in a march against the measure and at a recent council meeting, foes have made their positions clear. Few backers of the measure came to the microphone at the public hearing or have made their voices heard.

Silent Black Majority?

Mr. McMillan called me last week to insist that opposition is coming from the black establishment. He said his legislation resounds at the grass-roots level in black communities that are fed up with the blight and violence from the not-so-underground economy of drug dealing.

Still, it is difficult to determine whether backers of the alderman's legislation are a small group or the Silent Black Majority.

The councilman referred me to three black supporters in addition to Patricia Croslan, the executive director of the Annapolis Housing Authority who has publicly supported the proposal.

One public housing resident, who chose to speak off the record, said the bill's opponents are winning people to their side by suggesting that African-Americans who back Mr. McMillan are traitors to their race. Drugs have gotten so far out of hand that communities should gladly give up their constitutional rights to solve a pressing problem, she said.

This reminds me of a police practice I covered 10 years ago in Toledo, Ohio.The city's police chief issued a directive to his officers to stop and question teen-agers walking or standing around one neighborhood. Officers were ordered to take down their names and descriptions so they could refer to their notes in the event a crime was committed later by someone fitting their description.

Tough measures

Most people, black and white, were outraged by this practice. The chief rescinded his order after the issue became national news.

But during the debate, I found a number of African-Americans who supported the policy, arguing that the extreme measure was needed to rein in crime in their integrated neighborhood.

Indeed, different thoughts exist in the black community on everything from welfare to abortion to the death penalty. Black Republicans often argue that African-Americans are generally tougher on crime than whites.

A new Housing Authority commissioner, Anita Tyler, is among the supporters Mr. McMillan suggested I call. The resident of Newtowne 20 believes a silent majority is behind the alderman's bill.

"This is not a bill that Herb McMillan conjured up on his own," said Ms. Tyler, president of her development's neighborhood association. "This is something residents asked him for. Not just in Ward Five, but other wards as well. We want to live in a good, safe environment without worrying about what will happen next."

She says more black supporters could have spoken in support of the bill during the hearing but the group agreed to have a few representatives instead of dragging on the meeting.

Friends and foes of the bill should agree that the best weapon against drug dealing is a good relationship between law-abiding residents and police.

Unfortunately, we don't have a referendum to get a true sense of whether the affected communities think Mr. McMillan's is the correct path. Public speeches and phone calls make poor polls.

A work session on the bill is scheduled for Wednesday at Annapolis City Hall. Officially, council work sessions are not the time for public comment.

But if a silent majority believes Mr. McMillan's proposal is the way to deal with the drug problem, little time remains to measure the size of that contingent.

Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 9/26/99

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