Better arrests

April 26, 2006

Maybe Baltimore police officers were slow learners. Or their bosses just got tougher on sloppy arrest practices. But the number of people arrested for minor crimes who are released without charge is declining, and it's a marked improvement. For too long and in too great numbers, police were making arrests on nuisance crimes that weren't sticking. Prosecutors refused to file charges in about a third of on-site arrests for loitering, disorderly conduct and other crimes. That disconnect meant hundreds of potentially innocent people faced the disgrace of arrest with little recourse to clear their names.

Police officials have defended their aggressive policing as part of their strategy to reduce violent crime. But the practice has exacerbated jail overcrowding and stoked citizen mistrust of police.

The issue flared last summer when arrests for minor crimes peaked. In August, prosecutors declined to prosecute 2,961 of 8,964 on-site arrests, citing legal insufficiency. Police blamed the conflict on a lack of training. Hard to figure, considering that Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy had complained about the disparity and assigned a staffer to hold weekly refreshers for officers.

But police say more hours of enhanced training in search-and-seizure law have made a difference and improved outcomes: Arrests that failed to result in charges fell from 1,631 in December to 851 last month.

Not every arrest will lead to a successful prosecution, but thousands of arrests that routinely don't result in charges have rightly been cause for alarm. Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm has addressed the problem. But he can't let up on this issue as the busy summer season approaches.

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