To ensure the tactic is legally justified, the mayor says city police must comply with state law and send a report to the Maryland State Police on each incident

O'Malley backs use of stop and frisk

special report

sun follow-up

November 17, 2005|By GUS G. SENTEMENTES | GUS G. SENTEMENTES,SUN REPORTER

Mayor Martin O'Malley said yesterday that he supported the city Police Department's stepped-up use of stopping and frisking people to reduce violent crime, but he called for improved record-keeping and training to better monitor a tactic that has been criticized as a violation of citizens' rights.

O'Malley said police need to comply with state law, which requires that a report on each stop and frisk be sent to the Maryland State Police as a way of ensuring the stops can be legally justified. A review by The Sun found that city police have conducted thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of citizen stops this year, but have reported 11 to the state.

"I'm supportive of the legal and constitutional use of this tactic, and I'm also supportive of taking more guns off the streets and seizing more drugs," O'Malley said in an interview. "And all of that has to be done in accordance with the law.

"My expectation is that we streamline, that we simplify, and that we make the numbers [of stop and frisks] as timely and as accurate as we possibly can."

A stop and frisk involves a police officer detaining an individual and performing a pat-down search for weapons. To take the action, the officer is supposed to have a "reasonable suspicion" that the person is armed and may be involved in a crime.

In trying to increase pressure on criminals in some neighborhoods, city police commanders have directed officers to increase their use of the tactic in an effort to seize guns, according to internal records and interviews with police officials.

But police have lost track of how many times officers have stopped and frisked people. City officials note that the state law does not specify a deadline for law enforcement agencies to file reports with the state police. Without accurate, up-to-date statistics, the tactic's effectiveness is hard to assess.

City leaders and neighborhood activists say they regularly ask for more, not less, policing from a department with limited resources.

Cathy McClain, executive director of Cherry Hill 2000, an umbrella organization representing community associations and businesses in the south-side neighborhood, said that many residents understand that police have to do something to get guns off the street.

"Right now, this is the best something that can be done," McClain said. "I don't think everybody's in love with the idea. For the police, it really is a rock and a hard place."

McClain said she has a 21-year-old son who has been stopped and frisked by officers. "I've always asked him to cooperate. ... He's not happy about it, but he understands it's necessary," she said.

Others said they want the Police Department to do more to ensure that civil rights are not being violated in a daily push to reduce crime.

"We all realize and appreciate very much the very serious situation we find ourselves in with crime in Baltimore," said Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, Baltimore chapter president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "But at the same time, we cannot violate people's rights."

"We plan to discuss this issue with police officials," Cheatham said.

City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. said he has asked the Police Department to offer more training on how the officers should use the tactic. He also expressed concern that the department's incomplete accounting could subject the city to civil lawsuits.

"We don't want to open ourselves up to that," said Harris, who represents a sections of Northeast Baltimore. "We don't want the city to be vulnerable to that."

Matt Jablow, a police spokesman, said that department officials agreed with the mayor's position. He said that an internal audit of how many stop and frisks were conducted on people this year was "a couple of weeks" from completion.

"We're looking at the way we report our stop and frisks to the state police," Jablow said.

Internal figures obtained by The Sun showed a wide discrepancy in the department's accounting for the tactic. In one set of figures, police officers had done more than 130,000 "stop and frisks" in Baltimore through the first nine months of this year.

Police officials said that number was inaccurate and reflected a broader accounting of different kinds of police interactions with citizens, such as searches where people gave consent, searches that led to arrests and possible multiple reporting by officers.

One problem is that the department has fallen behind in reviewing the paper reports - called "citizen contact receipts" - and entering the information recorded on them into its computer databases. Officers use the receipts to document stop and frisks and other interactions with citizens that may not involve an arrest.

David Rocah, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, referred to the department's aggressive use of stop and frisk without adequate tracking as a "failure in leadership." He said the 1968 Supreme Court case of Terry v. Ohio - which created the standard of "reasonable suspicion" to conduct a frisk for an officer's safety - was intended to be used on a limited basis, not as a blanket tool.

"It was not meant to be a license for police to conduct random searches of people on the public streets, which is what it has turned into," Rocah said. "There's nothing wrong with aggressive policing. But it has to be aggressive policing within the bounds of the law."

O'Malley said the Police Department will be reviewing whether it has enough staff to process all of the paperwork that the officers generate in writing the receipts for the people they stop and frisk.

"I think we need to get the basics right," O'Malley said.

gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

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