Law and Order
State Delegate Drawing Attention to Increasing Number of Quality-Of-Life Arrests in Baltimore
“Soon as the cup hit the ground, the cop cuts off traffic, tells me, ‘Turn around,’” says Jordan, a 28-year-old truck driver and resident of the neighborhood, who had just left the Rendezvous Lounge on West 25th Street at about 6:30 p.m. on July 22. “The cop says, ‘You goin’ to jail for littering.’ He puts flex cuffs on me. He didn’t even give me a chance to bend over and pick up the cup.”
Jordan says the empty cup had contained water, and that he dropped it accidentally because of a hand injury he suffered in a car crash several years ago. Jordan is missing his right pinkie finger.
“I went down to Central Booking, stayed there till Saturday morning,” Jordan says, adding that he lost a day of work (and pay) because of the arrest.
When Jordan’s hearing came up, the prosecutor let him go. The violation was “abated by arrest.”
Jordan’s arrest was just one in a string of similar cases, some of them recently publicized in The Sun. There was Evan Howard, a Morgan State University engineering student arrested for “loitering,” profiled by Sun Columnist Gregory Kane in April. And there was Douglas L. Johnson, a Vietnam vet who detailed his July 1 arrest for sitting on the stoop of a vacant building in a letter to the media, also profiled by Kane. There was Donna L. Evans, a city parking control agent, who was cuffed by a police officer.
The flurry of media stories, and many more cases that go unpublicized, led a judge this spring to order everyone brought to Central Booking to be either charged or released within 24 hours. It also caught the attention of Baltimore City state Del. Jill P. Carter (D-41st District), who has started an online petition against what she terms the “criminalization of society.”
“I think there is pressure to make arrests,” Carter says. “There have been no repercussions for arresting people when there is no probable cause for arresting them, so they just keep doing it. The mayor has not said, ‘This is unacceptable.’ The [police] commissioner has said nothing.”
Carter compares statistics from Baltimore City—where police made 95,907 arrests between April 2004 and March 2005—with the arrest records of eight Maryland counties. According to her figures, Baltimore City police made eight times more busts than those in Prince George’s County, the second-place finisher. Baltimore, Carter says, actually made twice as many arrests as P.G., Montgomery, Howard, St. Mary’s, Wicomico, Harford, Frederick, and Charles counties combined.
And, once arrested, Baltimore’s accused criminals are much more likely than their peers in other parts of the state to be released without charges being filed. According to Carter’s numbers, Baltimore City booked but did not charge 21,721 people in the time frame she looked at—more than 121 times as many individuals booked but not charged as the eight other jurisdictions combined. Carter says these cases—which she likens to Jordan’s littering arrest—take a tremendous toll on innocent people.
“I have heard from people who say, in the three days they were held, they lost their jobs,” Carter says.
Carter says she hopes to hold hearings during the next legislative session and to spur a federal investigation of Baltimore City police policies.
“I have been told by officers that they are under pressure to make arrests,” she says. “I believe there is a lack of supervision on the part of superior officers to check and see if this arrest is justified.”
Baltimore Police Department spokesman Matt Jablow says the opposite is true. “As of July 30, our arrests were down 1.8 percent” from last year, he says. There had been 56,476 arrests so far this year, compared to 57,502 arrests over the same period last year.
Far from a policy of making more arrests, Jablow says Police Commissioner Leonard Hamm has repeatedly “said that arresting people should be our last resort.”
Even so, Jablow says, most of the calls Baltimore police officers get are for “quality of life” crimes such as loitering, prostitution, and urinating in public. “Am I saying that every one of our 100,000 arrests every year are perfect? No. But the vast majority are made properly,” Jablow says. “There is no policy to increase the number of quality-of-life arrests.”
When first contacted, Jablow stressed again and again that stories like Jordan’s are usually wrong, that people are arrested for committing crimes. “I don’t think it’s fair of anybody to judge the propriety of any particular arrest unless they know all the circumstances,” he said. He added that the rare cases in which an officer is unjustified in arresting someone lead to disciplinary action: “There’s no more serious charge against an officer than making a false arrest.”
Jablow promised to look into the Jordan case for specifics, but several days later would say only this on the record:
“We are focusing significant resources-and have been for several weeks—on Sector 1 in the Northern District. We have stepped up enforcement on all types of crimes, including quality-of-life crimes, and this arrest was part of our stepped-up enforcement effort there.”
Jablow cites “a large number of shootings and homicides in Sector 1,” which contains Remington and a couple other north-central Baltimore neighborhoods, as a reason for the stepped up enforcement. So far, Sector 1 has has 11 homicides and one shooting this year. He did not dispute the facts of Jordan’s arrest.
The area where Howard and 25th streets intersect has more than its share of crime. Jordan’s wife, Elizabeth Richardson, says that at the time her husband was arrested, drug dealers operated openly just two blocks away. On June 2, her brother Samuel Richardson, who worked at the Rendezvous Lounge, was shot to death while walking home from work. Police have made no arrests in that murder.
“In my opinion, this officer was mad,” Richardson wrote in an e-mail to City Paper, “maybe reflecting on how he was bullied or beaten up as a child and felt like this was revenge. I can’t say, but I know that I feel sooooooo much safer knowing the litterers are going to jail and the real criminals are walking around content because the rookies have their priorities mixed up.”
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