Groups applaud police reforms, hope for reduction in unjustified arrests

O'Malley says city never encouraged illegal arrests, settlement not a rebuke

June 23, 2010|By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

At age 18, Tavis Crockett had never had any trouble with the law, but in the summer of 2006, he found himself arrested and detained for hours at Central Booking — twice — within the span of a month.

His offenses: sitting on his aunt's front steps and dropping a candy wrapper in the street.

Officials with the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People say Crockett and thousands of other Baltimoreans were rounded up because of zero-tolerance policies that put a big emphasis on arrests but little on justifying them.

An $870,000 settlement approved Wednesday by the Board of Estimates will require the city to retrain officers, mandate that supervisors review "quality of life" arrests and allow an independent auditor to evaluate data and submit semiannual reports.

In a joint statement with the plaintiffs, the Police Department said it "had agreed to reject the zero-tolerance policies" and establish new ways to handle low-level infractions. Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said the reforms were "certainly in line with my overall mission for this Police Department."

"Each of these [reforms] is aimed at addressing what we thought were the structural reasons why improper arrests had bloomed in Baltimore," said David Rocah, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Maryland. "This was a case of toxic neglect. It just didn't matter enough to [officials] that this was happening."

The lawsuit, filed in 2006, chiefly covered arrests and policies the plaintiffs contended were enacted and encouraged by then-Mayor Martin O'Malley. But O'Malley, now governor, maintained Wednesday that there was "never, ever a policy that asked police officers to go beyond the Constitution or to engage in illegal arrests."

Asked whether the settlement was a rebuke of his policies as mayor, he said: "I don't see this as any rebuke. I do see it as a settlement where the city solicitor's office decided on a cost-benefit analysis to settle these 14 cases rather than go to trial with them."

Rocah said O'Malley's comment ignored the policy changes agreed to in the settlement, in addition to the city's general shift away from those policies in recent years. "Those kinds of reforms are simply not part of nuisance settlements," Rocah said.

Arrests reached 108,000 — one for every six people in the city — in 2005, but have dropped by more than 30,000 since then- Mayor Sheila Dixon and Bealefeld focused on a "targeted enforcement" strategy to combat the city's stubborn homicide rate. Arrests continue a downward trend this year, falling 7 percent, and fewer people are being released without charges.

Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, present of the NAACP's Baltimore branch, said he does not believe the problem of unjustified arrests has been eliminated, but he and Rocah said they applauded the efforts of current police leaders to address the issue, including signing off on the reforms.

"We've come a long way," Cheatham said.

The lawsuit is the second brought in recent years that has been settled and will result in outside monitors keeping close tabs on police affairs. A multimillion-dollar settlement in a lawsuit that alleged widespread race discrimination in internal disciplinary procedures calls for an outside consultant to monitor and compile confidential reports on discipline. That consultant recently began work, while the auditor who will review arrests should be picked within the next 60 to 70 days.

The $870,000 settlement includes $240,000 to pay the auditor's salary.

In many other cities, independent monitors have been in place for years because of allegations of misconduct or as a result of lawsuits. The Detroit Police Department has been under a consent decree for the past decade that requires a federal monitor to oversee reforms.

Dozens of other cities have created a city position for such oversight. Denver hired a police monitor five years ago in response to allegations of police misconduct; Austin, Texas, did so in 2002. New Orleans created one in 2008.

Baltimore has a civilian review board, created in 2000 by O'Malley, to review complaints against officers, but members are volunteers appointed by the mayor, and their reports of cases lack detail. The panel was given subpoena power in exchange for limiting its influence to that of an advisory role.

At an evening news conference at its headquarters called to help residents expunge their criminal records, the NAACP called on Bealefeld to create a commission to review police policies, procedures, rules, regulations and guidelines related to officers carrying weapons while off duty.

In addition to the auditor, Rocah said Wednesday's settlement calls for several other changes:

--Police will issue policies and directives laying out the elements of "quality of life" crimes and requiring officers to use lower-level methods of resolving them, such as issuing warnings or citations.

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