Arrogance of police action most distressing

November 16, 2005|By GREGORY KANE

More than anything, it's the arrogance that rankles.

That's the first thing that came to mind when I saw Sun reporter Gus Sentementes' article with the headline "Police step up frisking tactic." It ran Sunday. On the inside jump was another headline: "Police aggressively frisking people, review shows."

Police frisking people isn't bad in and of itself. It's one of the most routine parts of a cop's job. Some people do, indeed, need frisking. And when it comes to Baltimore's thug and drug-dealer element, some may need more than that.

But there are rules, even for frisking. The Fourth Amendment forbids police from making unreasonable searches and seizures without probable cause. In 1968, the Supreme Court made an exception to the probable cause requirement in Terry v. Ohio. This landmark ruling grew out of case in which a Cleveland detective saw two men acting suspiciously on a street corner, frisked them and discovered that they were packing guns. He arrested them for carrying concealed deadly weapons.

Before the Terry decision, officers needed to be able to demonstrate probable cause at a much higher threshold to stop, detain, question and search a person. In the years since Terry, several states across the country, including Maryland in 1972, passed laws that tried to codify the practice and give guidelines to police departments on how to perform such so-called Terry stops.

Here's how it works outside Baltimore, in the land known as the United States of America, where things like the Bill of Rights and Supreme Court decisions are still the law of the land:

Cops need some reasonable suspicion that someone on the street has engaged, is engaged or is about to engage in some criminal activity before there is a "stop and frisk."

Here's how it works here in Baltimore, in the land known as Stalag O'Malley, where the Bill of Rights and Supreme Court decisions have become a pitiable, humorless joke:

Cops just stop people, some repeatedly, on grounds that don't even come close to meeting the criteria for a Terry stop. That claim comes from some officers themselves. They've gone to their union, the Fraternal Order of Police, to complain that Baltimore honchos -- we have to give the blame to Mayor Martin O'Malley and Commissioner Leonard Hamm, since they're the ones in charge -- are pressuring them to "stop and frisk" to get "stop and frisk" numbers up.

That claim came from FOP President Lt. Frederick V. Roussey, who was quoted in Sentementes' article.

"We get calls all the time from [officers] saying ... people are tired of me pulling up and harassing them," Roussey said in the article.

How bad is it when cops complain about the harassment they're doing?

This year, some folks protested the huge numbers of arrests for petty offenses like loitering and public urination. Some of those arrested were first-time offenders who had no business spending time in Central Booking.

Private citizens have complained. Lawyers and civil libertarians have complained. Now cops have complained. What is the official response of department honchos to the complaints?

This police force can do no wrong, they tell us. Everything they do is right. In the matter of "stop and frisk," they have no apologies. They have no apologies even after admitting they're nowhere near filling out the paperwork on Terry stops that is required by law.

So if cops are making stops that don't meet the Terry criteria, they're breaking the law. Their superiors who countenance and perhaps even encourage their actions are breaking the law. If they don't fill out the paperwork, they're breaking or circumventing the law. And they have no apologies for it.

That's arrogance. What's so alarming about it is that it surpasses the arrogance even of former Commissioner Donald Pomerleau, who was Baltimore's top cop for 16 long, tyrannical years. Pomerleau took to civil liberties and the protections of the Bill of Rights the way a vampire takes to sunlight, only with less enthusiasm.

And he was arrogant about it. Proud of it. But the O'Malley-Hamm junta makes Pomerleau look like a disgruntled defector who bolted from the American Civil Liberties Union because he felt the organization was way too conservative.

Oh, and it's not just the arrogance. Or the arrests for petty offenses or the illegal Terry stops. Nor is it the junta's cavalier dismissal of two Baltimore Circuit Court judges' tossing out gun cases because they didn't trust the word of the cops. (The junta didn't even give a "Houston, we have a problem" acknowledgment when a third judge requested a grand jury inquiry into why many Baltimoreans don't trust the police.)

It's an entire atmosphere in the city that, were it to be called a police state, frankly would be putting it far too kindly.

We have cameras on street corners, a reminder that George Orwell was on the mark when he wrote his prescient novel 1984. Except our Oceania isn't a Marxist dictatorship. It's a homegrown, creeping totalitarianism we've developed on our own.

There are the stadium lights on other corners. Combined with the cameras, the lights are meant to convey to lawbreaker and law-abider alike that someone's always watching you. And the mayor has managed to pull this off and get Baltimoreans to chant the 2005 equivalent of "Long Live Big Brother": BELIEVE.

You have to admit, it was quite a feat of political legerdemain. O'Malley managed to introduce a police state into Baltimore and get re-elected with widespread popular support. But there's a funny thing about democratically elected police states with widespread popular support.

They're still police states.greg.kane@baltsun.com

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