`Quality of life' crime plan splits police, prosecutors

Justice: As a large number of cases are dismissed, some question whether the police chief's plan is helping the city.

July 12, 2004|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

Baltimore police officers have drastically increased their enforcement of so-called "quality of life" crimes during their first year and a half under Commissioner Kevin P. Clark, issuing a record number of citations and boosting the number of arrests.

"We look at all illegal behavior and attack it in any way we can," Clark says.

But the more people police send through the front door of the criminal justice system, the more cases prosecutors are tossing out. Since Clark took the helm, prosecutors are dismissing far more than half of all criminal citations, a marked increase. They're also declining to prosecute a higher percentage of arrest cases.

City prosecutors say more than half of the citations aren't legally sufficient - police officers often cite the wrong laws, don't give adequate warnings to offenders or fail to provide enough evidence.

The commissioner says that he would rather see the cases prosecuted and that he will improve citation-writing training, if necessary. But he insists he isn't shaken by the dismissals. "We're still accomplishing what we want."

Therein lies the debate as to whether Clark's enforcement plan for such minor crimes as loitering, possessing an open container of alcohol and riding a bicycle on the sidewalk is improving Baltimore's neighborhoods - even if charges are being dismissed.

"We're at a point where we need to assess whether the plan has done what they designed it to do," says City State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, who adds that she's not sure it has.

Criminal justice experts say it's possible to stem some quality-of-life crimes without prosecution, but they also caution against damaging relations between police and communities. And they warn that Baltimore's statistics appear to indicate a troubling rift between the city's police force and its prosecutors.

In pursuit of Clark's crime-fighting strategy, bicycle Officer John Brandt starts his shift at 9:30 a.m. on a steamy day this month, checking an alley behind the former Greyhound bus station.

He finds 57-year-old Frederick Jennings, who spends his nights on the city's streets and is sipping a 22-ounce Steel Reserve beer wrapped in bags.

This is the type of enforcement Clark pushes. By writing a citation, Brandt can quickly return to patrolling. Arresting an offender and waiting for transportation to jail can take an hour or more.

In less than 15 minutes, Brandt hands a citation to Jennings, makes the man pour out his beer and returns to patrol. Jennings is due in court Aug. 2.

`Broken windows'

Criminologists say Clark's approach to clearing city street corners grows from the "broken windows" theory, a policing model developed in the mid-1980s that says cleansing the environment helps deter criminal acts. That means eliminating graffiti and broken windows, as well as sweeping loiterers, panhandlers and people drinking alcohol off the streets.

The concept leads to higher citation and arrest totals, especially when combined with Baltimore's ComStat policing method - a statistically driven, New York-designed style that calls for continuously monitoring and mapping crime, then developing strategies to combat hot spots.

In 2002, the year before Clark arrived, police made 102,027 arrests. In 2003, officers made 107,373 arrests - a 5.2 percent increase, according to police. The pace has slowed this year, police data show.

In 2002, police have records of issuing 5,288 citations, though they say their records may not include all citations. Last year, they issued 22,071 citations - a 317 percent increase. They're on pace to issue as many this year, according to police statistics.

Since his arrival, Clark has added a new kind of citation to the police repertoire - a civil version that carries fines but no criminal penalty for minor offenses such as public urination.

Though the homicide numbers have remained steady since Clark's arrival, he and Mayor Martin O'Malley both boast a continued decrease in violent crime.

Clark attributes some of the decrease to improved quality-of-life policing. He says someone is less likely to loiter if he knows he's going to be arrested or issued a citation, even if the charges are dismissed in court.

It's an argument that experts endorse - to some extent.

James Fox, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University in Boston, said stepped-up enforcement makes it more inconvenient to loiter or urinate in an alley.

"Part of the deterrent here is that there's some response by police," Fox says. "They're not ignoring it."

But Ralph B. Taylor, author of Breaking Away from Broken Windows, a book about crime-fighting strategies in Baltimore, questions the long-term effect.

"He is disrupting their lives and getting them, for a short period of time, off the street," Taylor says. "Then they're back out there and then what? Are they going to change their behavior at all?"

Straining relations

Criminologists also caution about the downside of such enforcement.

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