Under the influence

March 25, 2004

IT'S FAIR TO question the wisdom of large-scale police-directed raids on certain Baltimore liquor establishments, but state Sen. Joan Carter Conway's attempt to ban that practice outright shows a serious lapse of judgment.

Ms. Conway's husband, Vernon Conway, is Baltimore's deputy chief liquor inspector. That conflict alone should have kept her from sponsoring legislation to restrict city police officers and sheriff's deputies from conducting these types of inspections. And while we're on the subject, she should be having second thoughts about accepting thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the liquor industry for the same reason.

Baltimore's senators have long controlled the city's liquor board, which regulates and licenses hundreds of liquor stores, bars and taverns. It's their little fiefdom of patronage, and heaven help anyone who treads on their turf. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. learned that recently when he tried to reappoint a board member who lacked Senate support. The board's coziness with the liquor industry is also well established.

Meanwhile, over the past year, the city Police Department has been conducting surprise visits to liquor establishments, often arriving with large teams of officers as well as fire and health inspectors who check each patron's identification and look for all kinds of civil violations. It's a less-than-subtle crime-fighting technique, and it hasn't made them particularly popular with the bar owners. A raid last year on a North Baltimore bar, Swallow at the Hollow, proved a public relations nightmare. The neighborhood tavern was hardly the kind of place where police were going to find any serious criminal wrongdoing.

But the city's Social Club Task Force has produced some results. Since last year, it has raided 129 businesses and closed down 78 - mostly for health and fire code violations - and arrested nine people. The police philosophy is clear: It makes a statement when police show up at bars and taverns that have a history of attracting a bad element.

Liquor board inspectors need all the help they can get. If city senators find the Police Department's tactics heavy-handed, they should take that up with Commissioner Kevin P. Clark or the mayor or City Council. They don't need to permanently hamstring police officers. And certainly not to protect their political turf - or help out a spouse. We urge the Senate to take the advice of Mayor Martin O'Malley and reject Ms. Conway's bill.

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