Arresting developments

June 23, 2006

The five young men could be anyone's brother, son or husband, and their alleged encounters with the Baltimore police as chronicled in a lawsuit filed last week read like everyone's worst nightmare: getting rousted for no good reason by belligerent cops who arrest you because they can. In plain language and stark terms, the arrests and detention of these men raise serious concerns about how the Baltimore police do their job.

The lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People charges city police with illegally arresting people for minor crimes. Not once, not twice, but systematically and as a matter of policy that has left thousands of citizens with arrest records in cases that were never prosecuted. A court will determine if the allegations are true - but this isn't new territory, as documented by city prosecutors' refusal to pursue charges in about a third of arrests for minor crimes such as loitering, public drinking and disorderly conduct.

Police officials have defended their aggressive strategy as a way to keep city streets safe, deter serious crimes and catch criminals who have evaded arrest. They point to the city's declining crime rate, but the policy has flooded the state-run jail with hundreds of people who may, in the end, never face a criminal charge. It has angered community leaders who argue that many young blacks are ensnared in the criminal justice system needlessly because of the policy. And two City Council members this week raised anew concerns about a possible arrest quota for officers.

Complaints and publicity about the multitude of arrests have brought about renewed training for police and a drop in the number of arrest cases that don't go forward. And if police know better now what constitutes a lawful arrest, that's a welcome improvement.

But the ACLU lawsuit has raised a more troubling allegation: that the Police Department's policy emphasizes and encourages arrests instead of solid cases with laudable outcomes. Certainly the thousands of arrests for loitering do raise a question as to why police can't find other ways of clearing street corners.

The police deny they are violating citizens' rights, but at the very least, the lawsuit should prompt a full review of a strategy that consumes manpower and money that would be better spent infiltrating violent drug gangs in Baltimore, putting them out of business and imprisoning their leaders for years.

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