Police step up frisking tactic

Officials say searches deter crime, but lack of tracking raises concern over practice

Special Report

November 13, 2005|By GUS G. SENTEMENTES | GUS G. SENTEMENTES,SUN REPORTER

In a push to seize guns and deter crime in the city's most dangerous neighborhoods, Baltimore police are aggressively stopping and frisking people, a tactic employed with little oversight from senior commanders and virtually no tracking of its effectiveness, a Sun review has found.

Department officials credit the strategy with helping to reduce homicides and violent crime in areas where people often ask for more police. But residents being targeted say they are unjustly harassed and detained. Defense lawyers and legal experts say they worry that the approach runs afoul of constitutional protections against illegal search and seizures.

Police officers are constitutionally prohibited from conducting random stops and searches, but courts have ruled that officers could stop a person if they had "reasonable suspicion" that someone had a weapon or was in the midst of committing or preparing to commit a crime.

Patrol officers - whose productivity is measured in large part by how many stops and arrests they make - have told their union representatives that what could be an effective tool for reducing crime is being overused in a daily push to ratchet up statistics.

Some call stop-and-frisks a "VCR detail" - for violation of civil rights, according to Lt. Frederick V. Roussey, the president of the police union.

`No apologies'

Police officials backed the strategy as one of many tools used to combat crime but said they are working to improve the way they monitor and account for the stops.

"We make no apologies for being an aggressive Police Department; that's why we have reduced crime this year," said department spokesman Matt Jablow. "But we're also committed to respecting people's civil rights and upholding the law."

Officers report performing tens of thousands of such stops this year, according to internal documents reviewed by The Sun. Their commanders put the figure far lower but concede that the department does not have an accurate count because of inadequate record keeping, despite a law requiring local agencies to report every such stop to the state police.

After questions from The Sun, the department launched an audit to determine the actual number of stop-and-frisks by officers.

Stephen Kearney, a spokesman for Mayor Martin O'Malley, deferred substantive questions on use of the tactic to the police, but said the department "should complete all of its required paperwork."

A stop-and-frisk involves an officer's detaining a citizen involuntarily on the street and patting down the clothes, such as pants or jacket, in a search for weapons. The tactic is aimed mostly at loiterers or people who officers believe are involved, even if not at that moment, in something illegal.

Police also are required to fill out citizen contact receipts for each frisk, giving one copy to the person searched and keeping another for department records. But the form is flawed because it doesn't require the signature of a supervisor, as mandated by the department's general orders.

William Elliott Jr., 40, is a frequent target, and he complains that he is often stopped without cause. Though he has a lengthy arrest record charging him with drug possession, he and legal experts say that alone is not justification for a random stop.

"They think everybody is a drug dealer," he said as he walked through the Park Heights neighborhood. He said he has been stopped and frisked so many times that he has lost count.

Elliott said an officer recently stopped and searched him while he was walking one of his children to a school bus stop.

Police record on the citizen contact receipts the races of people they stop and frisk. But because of flawed record keeping, city police were unable to provide a detailed racial breakdown of stop-and-frisk statistics. A preliminary analysis of 1,804 stop-and-frisks shows that officers used the tactic on about six blacks for every white person in a city where the population ratio is roughly two to one, according to an internal police report.

The practice is being applied mostly in neighborhoods besieged by crime, and where a high concentration of minorities live, records and interviews show.

Deputy Police Commissioner Marcus Brown said officers are told to use the tactic to disrupt drug corners, seize guns and prevent violence. The number of homicides this year is below last year's, and violent and property crimes also are down, statistics show. Brown said officers are expected to be "more proactive in the areas where we're having crime problems."

Stop-and-frisk strategies have been employed by police departments in Baltimore and elsewhere for years, and the policy was refined by the New York Police Department, where officials say the tactic helped to drastically reduce crime. It was part of a "zero tolerance" policy put in place in the 1990s by two top New York commanders who later would become police commissioners in Baltimore - Edward T. Norris and Kevin P. Clark.

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