Mayor, chief might reconsider size of the crime net they cast

April 20, 2005|By GREGORY KANE

DURING THE very weekend that news reports informed us Time magazine had named Martin O'Malley one of the top five big-city mayors in the nation, Barbara H. Weber was typing Hizzoner a letter.

Weber gave the details of what she said was her unnecessary arrest April 10 and the 46 hours spent in the Baltimore's Central Booking and Intake Center.

We can safely conclude that the editors of Time magazine have never spent a day - or two or three - in Central Booking.

Weber had a laundry list of complaints, the main one being against Officer Jeannette Smith of the Southwest District. Smith arrested Weber about 4 p.m. April 10. The charges were failing to obey a lawful order and resisting arrest.

Smith's statement of probable cause and Weber's account agree on all details but the finer ones concerning motive and the use of Mace. (Smith's report said the officer warned Weber she would be sprayed with Mace; Weber said she received no warning.) Weber said she, her husband and their two children were riding along the bike trail in Gwynns Falls Park with three neighborhood children. A neighbor's son fell and injured his back and head. Fearing the boy might have a concussion, Weber raced her bike home and returned in her pickup truck.

In her excitement, Weber forgot to retrieve her driver's license from her house. She returned to the scene of the fall and put the bikes in the back and four children in the cab. Weber drove while her husband and daughter pedaled home on their bikes.

Smith stopped Weber for not wearing a safety belt. Weber said she told Smith she was trying to get the injured boy to his parents so they could determine whether he should be hospitalized. At one point, Weber got out of the truck and tried to give Smith a phone number so the officer could call the boy's parents. She refused an order to get back to the truck and urged the officer to take the phone number.

"I figured she was a police officer, so she'd be reasonable," Weber said Monday from her home in Southwest Baltimore. "I kept waiting for reason to kick in."

In Weber's view, reason never did. What did kick in was Weber's stay in Central Booking, where she said employees told her a 48- to 72-hour stretch is now the norm, especially for folks arrested over the weekend. Weber said Central Booking workers also told her the backlog was caused by police arresting people on "minor and groundless charges."

That quote comes from Weber's letter to O'Malley.

"I presume this is related to increased arrest quotas," Weber said in her letter.

It's a presumption Nadean Paige has as well. Her son - 19-year-old Evan Howard -was arrested about 8:30 Friday night - for loitering. Howard didn't leave Central Booking, Paige said, until 4 a.m. Monday.

"He was a block away from home," Paige said. "He had just come out of a store and waved to a friend. They stopped to talk, and police stopped and arrested both of them."

Paige said it was her son's first arrest. She is now worried that the freshman engineering student at Morgan State University is "in the system."

Baltimore Police Commissioner Leonard Hamm said his officers don't see crimes as either major or minor.

"All we see is a violation," Hamm said. "What may be minor in West Baltimore may not be minor in South Baltimore. We don't deal with minor. We deal with violations of the law."

On the matter of whether Smith could have handled Weber's case differently, Hamm conceded that maybe the officer could have.

"I'm 6 feet 2 inches and over 200 pounds," Hamm said. Smith "is 5 feet 2 inches and about 120 pounds. I'm sure there are situations where she would handle something differently than I would. Each police officer has latitude in resolving problems. As long as the police officer doesn't violate the law or our regulations or procedures, then I'm comfortable with how the officer handled it."

It might be time for some officers to use more discretion when exercising that latitude. Hamm might be comfortable with arrests for traffic stops, loitering and other minor violations. But when law-abiding folks like Weber - a 35-year-old state employee - get snared in the net to catch criminals, then we have to start questioning the policies of the police commissioner and the mayor.

Hamm and his officers might see only violations. But Paige, who insists her son did nothing wrong, sees something more insidious.

"This is not a police state," Paige said, adding: "When has it become a crime to stop and talk to your friends?"

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