Black officials raise zero-tolerance fears

O'Malley tells group that enforcement will not be race-based

December 21, 1999|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Concerned that zero-tolerance policing could increase racial profiling by police, about 20 African-American elected officials met yesterday with Mayor Martin O'Malley to ensure that officers do not target suspects because of their race.

State Del. Howard P. Rawlings, who organized yesterday's meeting, said it was the first in which African-American City Council members and state legislators met with the mayor "to discuss an issue of such significance."

City and state leaders were concerned that incidents such as the alleged racial profiling of Del. Talmadge Branch by city police in June might become more common as officers carry out O'Malley's zero-tolerance strategy.

"We just want to make sure that this whole process with zero tolerance and with the way blacks have been treated that it doesn't get out of hand," Branch said. "The whole issue of driving while black is much larger than myself."

O'Malley described the meeting, which was closed to the news media, as a fruitful discussion during which the legislators spoke about confrontations between police and their constituents, friends and family members. He said it also prompted a look at possible ways to ensure that officers do not abuse their powers as he moves toward implementation of his crime-fighting initiatives.

The New York-style zero-tolerance policing strategy, which involves targeting smaller crimes and repeat offenders to prevent violent crime, is at the heart of O'Malley's crime plan, which in large part won him this year's election. O'Malley has promised to clean up 10 drug corners in the city in the first six months of his administration and make low-income neighborhoods as safe as wealthier communities.

Yesterday, the mayor said he plans to be as vigilant about policing the police as he will the streets.

"My pitch to the delegates and council people today was I fully understand that we cannot hope to have effective policing unless we have a police department with integrity and one that is willing to police itself," O'Malley said.

The mayor said that he and the legislators said the use of cameras in police cars will help guard against police abuses. In addition, O'Malley said he told the legislators that he plans sensitivity training for officers and to make police communications tapes more accessible.

The key, O'Malley said, was to find the right person to run the Police Department. He said he wants someone who will make sure that allegations against officers are not "swept under the rug. All of those things need to be monitored and tracked."

Some of the city's political and community leaders have said they fear that zero tolerance also will bring the kind of confrontations New York's government has faced with African-American and other minorities.

"I'm a supporter of zero-tolerance policing; at the same time I want to make sure that we're vigilant about dealing with the racial disparity involved in it," said Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., who was invited to the meeting but unable to attend.

Thousands of protesters in April rallied over the death of West African immigrant Amadou Diallo, who was killed when four white New York police officers sprayed 41 bullets at him as he stood in the vestibule of his apartment building in the Bronx.

Concerns in Baltimore arose before O'Malley stepped into the mayor's office. In September, an officer shot and killed Mardio House as police attempted to arrest him. Homicide Detective Christopher Graul is accused of shooting House after he mistook House's cellular telephone for a weapon, but no charges were filed against Graul.

Officers are accused of shooting Larry Hubbard, 21, in October and Eli McCoy, 17, on Thanksgiving Day. The state's attorney's office is investigating the Hubbard and McCoy shootings, and lawsuits are pending against the city in those cases.

Some questioned whether such incidents would be more common under zero tolerance.

Although Branch did not suffer brutality, the delegate alleges that he was wrongly stopped by city police because of his race. The 43-year-old African-American from East Baltimore, wearing a baseball cap and leather jacket, had just left Germano's restaurant in Little Italy in his silver Mercedes when a city officer stopped him on the Fallsway, off President Street.

Branch said the officer told him that he was being stopped because he was using a House of Delegates license plate in June. The officer said the tags were only to be used during the General Assembly session, which runs for 90 days from January to April, Branch said. In fact, the tags are issued for legislators' use throughout their tenure.

O'Malley said he would have the acting commissioner review the Branch incident.

The African-American officials are scheduled to meet with O'Malley again in January after a permanent police commissioner is chosen.

"I think we left the meeting believing that we had a mayor that was going to address these issues," Rawlings said.

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