Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark presented a case last night for using fines to combat minor offenses that now require burdensome criminal remedies, forcing officers to spend more time in court than on the street.
In a public hearing at City Hall, Clark lobbied for a contentious strategy to issue civil citations for dozens of quality-of-life crimes such as loitering, public urination and curb-side gambling.
"It's the small things that affect everything," Clark told the City Council's Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee at a standing-room hearing. "We want to attack the problems of the city without giving everyone in this city a criminal record."
Many of the city residents crowding the hearing room supported Clark's proposal and bolstered his assessment that they are tired of the lawlessness that troubles their neighborhoods and keeps people, especially the elderly, captive in their homes.
"It hurts when I see people too scared to walk the streets," said the Rev. George Jerome Williams, an 80-year-old veteran of three wars. "There is a time for someone to do something. And how we do something is to support the Police Department."
If the legislation passes, as expected, police officers would be able to issue civil citations with fines ranging from about $25 to several hundred dollars. For example, loitering carries fines ranging from $50 in most public places to $200 in drug-free zones. Police say the fines could be paid by mail or the citations could be contested in District Court.
Issuing civil citations, Clark said, would alleviate heavy caseloads in criminal court and not give criminal records to those committing minor offenses. All of the offenses that would be eligible for citations are now combated most often with arrests, he said.
Citations would also keep officers, who often lose several hours of patrol time processing arrests, on the street longer. City solicitors, who work under Mayor Martin O'Malley, would handle the cases -- not prosecutors.
Clark's PowerPoint presentation displayed a series of photographs illustrating his case -- young men riding motor bikes on sidewalks, young men sitting below a No Loitering sign outside a liquor store, young men standing on corners.
Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young said he worries the citations would give the police yet another tool not to clear the corners of drug dealers but to unjustly harass African-Americans.
"I can't support something like this," Young said.
Hassan Allen-Giordano, president of Black Citizen Caucus, agreed and said civil citations would violate the constitutional rights of young people to gather in groups.
"The youth will be disproportionately targeted," said Allen-Giordano, who worried that young people hanging out during the summer would receive citations for no good reason.
Clark said his officers can be trusted to use common sense to properly judge each circumstance.
Daniel Fickus, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, the city police union, said he worried that performance evaluations of officers could end up relying on the number of citations they write.
Either way, said former state Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, the council, public and union do not know enough about Clark's plan to adopt the citation policy without extensive study.
"It may be a good tool, but who knows?" Mitchell said. "There is no need to rush into this."