City approves settlement with NAACP, ACLU in 'mass arrest' case

Agreement calls for auditor to review 'quality of life' arrests by city police

June 23, 2010|By Justin Fenton | justin.fenton@baltsun.com | Baltimore Sun reporter

An outside auditor will review "quality of life" arrests made by Baltimore police over the next three years as part of an $870,000 settlement between the city and the NAACP and ACLU that was approved today by the city Board of Estimates.

A lawsuit filed in 2006 on behalf of 14 people alleged that their arrests indicated a broad pattern of abuse in which thousands of people were routinely arrested without probable cause. The suit also alleged that the so-called "zero tolerance" system was endorsed and enforced by city officials under the tenure of then-mayor Martin O'Malley.

In a joint statement with the plaintiffs, the police department said it has agreed to institute policies that reject the "zero tolerance policing" and establish a range of appropriate officer responses to minor offenses. The department will issue written directives that spell out the elements of common minor offenses to ensure that officers are aware of the scope of their authority, and will train every officer on the new policies for offenses, the statement said.

Arrests in the city have fallen by the tens of thousands since O'Malley became governor, and the ACLU and NAACP said in the statement that they recognize that the current city leadership has taken steps to address the issue and "applaud those efforts."

City Solicitor George Nilson said the city has argued that the controversial arrest practices were abandoned years ago, but the city was unable to have the suit dismissed and struck a compromise. An auditor will be selected within the next three months and will begin evaluating data from that point forward.

"Their job is not to ferret out the alleged shortcomings of the past, but to make sure we're on the right path and right track going forward," Nilson said.

The auditor will be the second outside consultant who will be looking over the shoulders of police officials as a result of lawsuits filed under past regimes. James Outtz has begun work reviewing the department's internal disciplinary data and procedures as part of a multi-million dollar settlement in a separate lawsuit that alleged widespread racial discrimination. That settlement mandates that Outtz's reports to Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III be kept confidential, but reports generated through the NAACP and ACLU lawsuit will be public.

Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said the mayor was "proud of the police department's efforts to target violent criminals." "Crime is down to historic lows while arrests have been reduced," he said.

State Sen. Verna Jones, a Baltimore Democrat, called the addition of an auditor "a step in the right direction."

"It sounds like a good idea," Jones said. "We have been trying to make sure there has been some accountability.

"We have to make sure that people aren't erroneously being held," she said.

In recent years, officials have trumpeted a steady reduction in arrests and arrests that don't result in charges. Bealefeld often talks about how officers are "fishing with a spear instead of a net" to target violent offenders.

More than 108,400 arrests were made in 2005, a figure that dropped to 77,600 in 2009. Thirty-thousand people have been arrested so far this year, a decline of 7 percent compared with the same period last year. And 11 percent less people are being released without charges. But residents say police continue to make unnecessary arrests.

Lawrence Pulley, president of the Oliver community association, praised the work of the current administration and said residents need to work with police. But he said the problem of widespread arrests "hasn't gone away." He said he heard about an incident earlier this week that was "pretty rough, and in my eyes shouldn't have been."

"When you have to spend money to get a lawyer, that's money that might have been intended for a mortgage payment, or a vacation, or kids going to school," said Pulley, who helped host a forum in East Baltimore Tuesday night to discuss community concerns with police. "There are some bad apples [in the police department], and you hope they don't spoil the good ones, because there's plenty of good ones."

The lawsuit, filed first in Baltimore Circuit Court and later filed in federal courts, condemned the city's practice of jailing citizens for quality-of-life crimes such as loitering — one of the central strategies once emphasized by police here. The issue received widespread attention after The Baltimore Sun reported on overcrowding at the city jail.

The plaintiffs included a 19-year-old Morgan State engineering student, a Parkville elementary school teacher, a doctoral candidate in neurobiology from Texas, and two Pennsylvania residents visiting Baltimore for a bachelor party.

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