A little too frisky

November 28, 2005

The presumption in this city should be that most people on the street are minding their own business. If a police officer thinks otherwise, he must have "reasonable suspicion" that something's amiss before he can stop and search anyone. That's the law. The woman on the stoop, the teenager in the park, the guy on the street corner may be a target in high crime areas, but police have to abide by the law just like the rest of us. And, when it comes to a stop-and-frisk, the law is clear: "reasonable suspicion." Without it, a patrol officer must keep on driving.

Why restate the obvious? Because a recent report in The Sun makes us wonder just how many police officers are following the U.S. Supreme Court's 1968 instruction on stop-and-frisk. Internal police documents reviewed by reporter Gus G. Sentementes found that police stopped and frisked people more than 130,000 times in the first nine months of this year, or 480 times a day citywide. That would mean 20 Baltimoreans an hour in a 24-hour period. The tactic, part of an aggressive police strategy, is either grossly overused or wildly over-reported.

City police dispute the 130,000 figure, saying it represents the number of "citizen/police contacts" during that nine months, which could include stops for driving and motor vehicle violations, field interviews or consensual searches. But the department can't verify how often police actually stopped and frisked someone in that period without auditing every single citizen/police contact report. That audit is now under way, as it should be - because without that data, the department can't possibly back up its contention that stops-and-frisks led to a 21 percent increase in gun seizures this year over last year.

The department's record keeping on this issue needs a major overhaul. Without an accurate accounting, the department leaves itself open to criticism that citizens are being needlessly and unlawfully stopped and searched. Aggressive police strategies have driven down the crime rate in Baltimore. But the department also relies on citizens to help in this fight. And the public has a right to expect - and demand - that police are doing the job in a lawful and respectful manner.

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