Police policies severely criticized

Tensions over arrest rules in the city boil over at a public meeting

Baltimore & Region

September 27, 2005|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,sun reporter

Tensions percolating for months between some community leaders and the city Police Department boiled over at a meeting last night in West Baltimore, as critics including civic advocates, a state delegate and a well-known criminal defense lawyer claimed police arrest policies have deepened racial and economic disparities.

Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm, who participated in the panel discussion organized by the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, conceded that the department faced challenges, such as offering better training to officers on how to write criminal charges and making it easier for the public to file complaints of police misconduct.

"We've got a training problem," Hamm said. "A lot of our people are not writing good statement of charges. ... We need to develop a way to share information so I can do something about it."

Others said the problem goes deeper than officer training and is rooted in the department's overall crime-fighting strategies. Some panel members blamed the department's pursuit of a sweeping arrest policy for saddling many city residents with arrest records -- even though in many cases, the charges are rejected by prosecutors and not brought to court.

"All it takes is a phone call, Hamm, to your people to say, `Cut it out,'" said Warren A. Brown, a Baltimore defense lawyer on the panel. "It's spiraling out of control and y'all ain't doing anything about it. If our liberty is disregarded, that's only second to our life."

He told Hamm, "Y'all ain't doing anything about it except for some jive lip service."

According to recent statistics produced by the city state's attorney's office, prosecutors declined to press charges against 630 people arrested on loitering and similar charges in June. Nearly the same number were thrown out because prosecutors felt they could not prove the cases. About 1,600 arrests each month do not result in a person being charged with a crime, a City Council report said this month.

"This is an unacknowledged crisis in Baltimore today," said David Rocah, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, who was on the panel. "The critical and indisputable fact is that tens of thousands of people are being arrested and released because they never should've been arrested in the first place."

City Councilman James B. Kraft, a Democrat who represents portions of Southeast Baltimore and spoke about the council report last night as a panel member, said he gets phone calls daily from residents who want more police officers in their neighborhoods.

"Here's the other side of it -- I get calls all day and night about crime. This is a recurring thing every single day," Kraft said, calling it a "constant cry from the community."

Several officials said that part of the solution is making it easier for people to expunge arrest records, particularly in those cases where they are released without ever being charged with crimes.

Del. Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat, and Kraft spoke of the need for state legislation to put the responsibility on government, not individuals, to clear up arrest records of people who are not charged with a crime.

gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

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