City poised to approve 'mass arrest' settlement with NAACP, ACLU

Board of Estimates to vote on $870,000 settlement, part of which will pay for outside auditor to review arrests

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

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 is expected to be approved today by the city Board of Estimates, according to a city official.

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.

The plaintiffs have scheduled a news conference today to discuss the settlement and declined to comment Tuesday.

City Solicitor George Nilson said the city has argued that such 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.

Terms of this week's settlement were first reported by the Daily Record.

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 that don't result in charges. More than 108,400 arrests were made in 2005, a figure that dropped to 77,600 in 2009.

More than 30,000 people have been arrested so far this year, a decline of 7 percent compared with the same period last year. And fewer — 11 percent — 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.

The time period covered by the plaintiff's allegations is between 2005 and 2007, predominately under the tenure of O'Malley, a Democrat, and former Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm, but the suit included former Mayor Sheila Dixon, former Commissioners Edward T. Norris and Kevin Clark, and Bealefeld as defendants as well.

In a statement released by the ACLU, the plaintiffs said they believe that changes in the Police Department's leadership paved the way for the settlement, and that the mandated reforms will ensure that the past won't be repeated.

The complaint also incorporated a separate class-action lawsuit targeting strip-searches at the city jail and "filthy and overcrowded" conditions at Central Booking. The state reached a settlement with the plaintiffs earlier this year for $50,000, with no admission of liability, said Assistant Attorney General William F. Brockman.

Police union president Robert Cherry wouldn't comment specifically on the settlement, but said, "The Police Department, under Commissioner Bealefeld and former Mayor Sheila Dixon, was able to go after guns and criminals with records," reducing crime, all while reducing the number of arrests.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

twitter.com/justin_fenton

Baltimore Sun reporter Jessica Anderson contributed to this story.



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