Miscommunication is the big winner as senator withdraws bar-policing bill

Lesson to be learned in death of Conway bill

March 27, 2004|By Gregory Kane

YESTERDAY Baltimore state Sen. Joan Carter Conway killed SB 409, her bill that would have, in its plain and simple legalese, "[prohibited], in Baltimore City, a member of the Baltimore City Police Department or a member of the Sheriff's office from conducting investigations of the type normally conducted by liquor board inspectors, except under specified circumstances."

Cynthia Gaver, the co-founder of Dundalk Avenue Area Residents Together (DAART), gave her reaction.

"It should be dead," Gaver said, "with a hole in its heart."

Gaver felt, like Mayor Martin O'Malley and Baltimore police Commissioner Kevin Clark, that the bill -- co-sponsored by Sens. Lisa Gladden, Nathaniel McFadden and Verna L. Jones -- would have hindered police efforts to crack down on the stores, bars and social clubs that not only sell booze, but bring a plethora of problems to communities like hers.

"[Conway and the co-sponsors] have to smell it," Gaver said of the stench left by liquor establishment patrons who urinate on public sidewalks. "They have to see it. They have to watch the fights spill out into the streets. There are too many bars with trash, drug dealing and outbreaks of violence."

Here's the irony: Conway said that her bill, as written, would have in no way prevented police from cracking down on crime around -- or even inside -- places that sell liquor.

"So much misinformation has been placed out there," Conway said. "All of the unfounded allegations made by the police commissioner and the mayor -- who is a lawyer -- are untrue."

Conway said the criticism and media attention unnerved some of the co-sponsors -- she didn't say which ones -- so much that she had to kill the bill.

"But if it were left up to the senator from the 43rd," she added, "hell would freeze over before I take the bill back."

What, I asked Conway, exactly was the misinformation about her bill?

"That it prohibits police from going into bars," the senator said. "That's not true. Police can go into the bars. They can arrest for public urination. They can arrest for being loud and disorderly.

What police wouldn't be able to do under her bill, Conway stressed, was ask owners of establishments that sell alcoholic beverages the questions liquor inspectors ask.

"There's no reason," Conway said, "for police to be in a bar asking routine inspection questions when they could be on a corner arresting drug dealers." Conway said the primary purpose for her bill was to get police out of the bars and back on the streets where they're needed more.

"If somebody's burglarizing your house," Conway asked, "would you prefer police to be in your house or in a bar saying, `You don't have enough toilet paper'?"

But Gaver -- and Melissa Techentin, president of both DAART and the Southeast Police Community Organization -- said crime, particularly drug dealing, occurs in the bars. Techentin had a list of neighborhood complaints about one bar in Dundalk that included public urination, loud noise, trash, drug dealing and a 2001 gang rape behind the building.

"That's right," Conway countered, acknowledging that some businesses have crime problems. "So what prohibits [police] from going in there and making arrests?"

Nothing, she insisted, in SB 409.

What we have here may be the classic failure to communicate. Conway believes her bill wouldn't have prevented police crackdowns on crime in liquor establishments. Gaver and Techentin believe just as fervently that what police have been doing -- even asking what Conway might feel are innocuous questions -- has led to a more civilized atmosphere around neighborhood bars.

Techentin said her daughter now thinks Dundalk Avenue looks like a nice place to live. Kids play outside, mothers push strollers along the sidewalk and runners jog unmolested through the neighborhood. All this happened after police started leaning on the owners of liquor establishments, and folks like Gaver and Techentin have drawn their own conclusions.

The Latin phrase for that is post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Simply put, if a particular result occurs after an event, then the event must have caused the result.

Sometimes it's valid. Sometimes it's not. For her part, Conway doesn't feel the crackdown was effective. When her committee investigated 129 raids on liquor establishments, they learned police only made five arrests in two locations. That, for the senator, was a waste of manpower.

"I looked at [the bill] as a mechanism for putting [police] back in the community," Conway said.

Can a lesson be learned here? Sure it can.

In some parts of Baltimore, the problem is the drug dealer on the corner.

In other parts, it's the bar.

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