Unusual plan aims to curb town's nuisance police calls

Ordinance: Some object to Union Bridge's proposal to impose fines on those who generate excessive calls.

March 22, 2004|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

When Cpl. Clint Cromwell checked the address of the Union Bridge apartment building, he knew why it sounded familiar: He had answered calls there more than 50 times since mid-2002.

It was another example, town leaders said, of how the Carroll County sheriff's deputy was spending too much time responding to nuisance calls for loud parties, drinking and fights.

So, in an unusual response, the Town Council is proposing to start fining those who generate repeat nuisance calls.

Anyone causing a second nuisance call in a year would get a warning and a sign posted on the property. Subsequent calls in a year would trigger fines of $500 for a first offense and $1,000 for any additional offense. The policy would be unusual in the state, says an expert on Maryland laws.

"I deal with a lot of the municipal codes," said James P. Peck, the Maryland Municipal League's director of research for more than 20 years. "I would have to say that's a new one. It would be rare, if not unheard of."

Because the proposed ordinance does not specify what kinds of calls would fall within its scope, some people have raised concerns.

The mayor and council decided that if they couldn't cut down on the number of calls, they would try to recoup some of what they pay annually to have the deputy provide police services for their town of about 1,000 people - $36,000 in the coming fiscal year.

"It's unfair to the rest of us when a small part of the population uses the majority of the police force," said Mayor Bret D. Grossnickle. "I don't think we're out of line here with wanting the offenders to pay for these police calls. They're creating the problem. Loud music, partying, drinking, fighting, it's all these things, not domestic violence or other crimes."

A public hearing on the ordinance will be held at 7 p.m. today.

According to the proposed ordinance, the notice and any fine could be appealed to the mayor and council. Any penalty would be collected like municipal taxes and, if unpaid, could lead to a lien on the property. The proposed ordinance specifies that a second call in a year also would lead to the property's being placed on a probation list, where it would remain for two years.

Grossnickle said the ordinance would apply to any property in the town. The ordinance has been revised to specify police calls to individual apartments rather than to an entire building, said Town Attorney John T. Maguire II, after the mayor and several council members raised concerns at last month's council meeting.

The problem is not unique to Union Bridge, but the solution is unusual, said Maguire and other officials.

"People have ordinances on the books that are not rare - dealing with fire alarms, burglar alarms going off," Peck said, "but in regards to standard police calls, I'm not aware of anything on the books."

In Baltimore and Howard counties, police said there is no penalty or prohibition linked to the number of calls to their departments. An Anne Arundel County law calls for fines for excessive police calls, but does not specify the number.

Since the proposed ordinance was introduced last month, Grossnickle said, there have been no calls to the Town Hall about it, though a few residents have stopped him to say they like the idea. He has spoken informally twice with several members of the Carroll County Landlords Association and believes the talks will help improve cooperation between the town and landlords.

Russell A. Arenz II, president of the 185-member nonprofit association, plans to attend the public hearing on the ordinance.

"I'm not even sure it's legal," he said. "Basically, you're charging for police service. You're going to create a climate of fear among the residents."

Arenz said most leases allow eviction for criminal activity, but added, "If the officer is going out and not making an arrest, they're tying our hands." He said the proposed ordinance does not distinguish between nuisance calls and crimes, referring only to excessive calls.

The target, Arenz said, "is basically loud, drunk and disorderly conduct, and there are laws against that. So why are you making another law?"

That concerned Jo Ann Hare, executive director of the Rape Crisis Intervention Service of Carroll County, when she read about the proposal.

"I can see why law enforcement would feel frustrated with multiple calls to a single home or address," she said, but "naturally they would want to work out some exception to that policy for calls related to domestic violence. It's important that victims of domestic violence or any other form of such violence would feel free to seek help from the police when their life is in danger."

Other incorporated Carroll towns have nuisance ordinances, although none deals specifically with police calls.

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