O'Malley and city police persist in petty law enforcement pursuits

July 16, 2005|By GREGORY KANE

THE TRAFFIC gets pretty heavy most mornings at the corner of Auchentoroly Terrace and Gwynns Falls Parkway, which might make it the perfect spot for someone to deliver a message with a large enough sign.

And that's why attorney Warren Brown was there Wednesday morning, arriving around 7:30-ish and staying over an hour, holding up a 4 foot-by-4 foot black sign with huge yellow letters.

"Mr. Mayor, Stop The Illegal Arrests," it read.

Brown is talking about those arrests Baltimore police make for trespassing, loitering, public urination and other offenses that could just as well be handled by issuing civil citations. Brown gets calls from people who have been arrested, and he's heard it all.

"People get arrested for not moving fast enough, for back talking, for asking for a police officer's badge number or for being with someone who asked for a police officer's badge number, and much more," Brown said.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and police Commissioner Leonard Hamm have adopted a policy of arresting as many people as possible for the pettiest offenses possible, according to Brown and other critics. Some of those arrested have no prior criminal record, they add.

O'Malley and Hamm might not see a problem with folks who have no prior criminal history being arrested on petty offenses, but Brown does.

"It does a number of things," Brown said. "It creates hostility in the community toward police officers. It makes all of us fear we can be snatched up at any moment and taken to Central Booking for not moving fast enough."

What especially rankles Brown is the way many of these arrests are resolved: with the police officer writing "abated by arrest" on the report.

"That's a code for `don't bother asking me to come to court. The issue has been resolved, no court intervention needed,'" Brown said of the term "abated by arrest."

Margaret Burns, a spokeswoman for the state's attorney's office, said the term "simply means the police came upon the situation where there was alleged criminal activity and by making the arrest the activity stopped. The case is basically closed by the arrest."

What it amounts to in the real world is this: "Abated by arrest" means that if you're arrested for loitering, trespassing, public urination or any other petty offense in Baltimore, then the cops can act not only as police, but as jury and judge.

The proper name for that type of society is a police state. That's not my term. It comes from Douglas L. Johnson, a Vietnam vet who says he and a friend were arrested on the morning of July 1 for sitting on the steps of a vacant building at the corner of Mosher Street and Myrtle Avenue.

"We was walking around, and we got tired," Johnson recalled. They talked about the old neighborhood as they walked, especially Miss Edie's store at the corner of Lafayette and Myrtle avenues and the exquisite ice cream cones she used to serve.

"We sat down," Johnson said. "The two cops drove around the corner and got out of the car and arrested us."

Johnson lives in Curtis Bay but grew up in the West Baltimore neighborhood where he and his friend took their morning stroll. During the 18 hours he spent in Central Booking, Johnson said he noticed several young employed black men, their "uncashed paychecks in their pockets," who had been arrested for trespassing. They were stressed out because they feared they might lose their jobs.

"I cannot walk around my [old] neighborhood, the one place I thought about all the time I was in Vietnam," Johnson wrote in a letter to The Sun. "When a holiday such as the Fourth of July comes around I cannot even come outside and look at what I fought for. Simply because Baltimore has become a police state."

Johnson, kind soul that he is, said it wasn't because of the police. He said it was "due to the laws on the books." But that's not it, either. It's the policy of the mayor and police commissioner.

Without using the term police state, Brown said he gave a simple answer to the question, "What are our rights in the community?" when it was put to him at neighborhood meeting.

"You don't have any" rights, Brown replied.

Hamm wouldn't comment on Brown's protest and allegations. But O'Malley's spokeswoman, Raquel Guillory, did.

"We don't believe our officers are making needless arrests," Guillory said.

It's clear O'Malley hasn't been getting the same calls Brown's been getting.

"Our officers are on the streets risking their lives every day to make our streets safer," Guillory continued.

Ah, yes, the venerable "our police are risking their lives" defense. Who knows what unmitigated evil might have befallen cops and civilians alike if Johnson and his buddy had been allowed to revel unchecked about the joys of Miss Edie's ice cream.

"It becomes that big pink elephant that you see, but you don't see," Brown said of the number of arrests for petty offenses. "I want to make sure that people see that big pink elephant."

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