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He Said, She Said

Controversy Mounts Over Unprosecuted "Quality of Life" Arrests

Frank Klein
RESISTING ARRESTS: (from left) Derek Bowden, activist Cortly "C.D." Witherspoon, City Court Clerk Frank Conway, and Del. Jill P. Carter gather to speak out against overly aggressive policing.

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 9/7/2005

When a Baltimore police officer allegedly called Derek Bowden a “nigger in a car,” Bowden fired back, calling the cop “boy.” Soon, Bowden says, he was at the city Central Booking and Intake Facility, stuck in a cell for nine hours. “They towed my car,” Bowden, a photographer, says. “Ten dollar cab ride to get back home.”

Thus Bowden, a former drug addict who says he has been clean for 18 years, became one more of the 1,800 or so Baltimore City arrestees booked, imprisoned, effectively fined (the tow cost $175, he says) but not charged with any crime during the month of August. Bowden told his story after a press conference on Sept. 1 called by state Del. Jill P. Carter (D-41st District).

Claiming that Baltimore Police Department tactics foster a “climate of hostility” between citizens and police, Carter and others called on Mayor Martin O’Malley to stop “illegal arrests.” They say the mayor can do it with a simple phone call to Police Commissioner Leonard Hamm.

But City Councilman Jim Kraft (D-1st District) says Carter is out of touch with the city’s effort to understand the problem and correct it. “I just don’t understand why Delegate Carter isn’t as familiar with this as I believe she should be,” says Kraft, who chairs the council’s subcommittee on public safety. “This was not difficult information to discover, because we have been working diligently on it for such a long period of time now.” (See the Mail, page 5.)

Criticism about the number of arrests without prosecutions committed by Baltimore police—usually for minor things like public urination, loitering, and littering—has been growing since last spring, after The Sun published several articles about specific cases. On April 25 a judge ordered officials at Central Booking to release anyone who had been held for 24 hours without a hearing. Kraft says his committee report, which he expects to release this week, will detail reasons why the Baltimore arrest-and-release statistics (1,800 per month compared to 72 per year in Prince George’s County) are not as bad as they first appear—and that some reforms are already in place.

Other counties don’t use prosecutors to weed out weak cases in the jails, Kraft says. Because Baltimore does, the number of people arrested but not charged appear much greater.

Kraft says this spring his committee also forced Central Booking to partially fill out the form requesting that an arrest be removed from the public record, and offer the form to everyone who is released without being charged. “We made it mandatory—you have to give the form,” Kraft says. “If you find out that they’re not, then we need to know that.”

Warren A. Brown, a defense attorney who has been outspoken on this issue, says the forms aren’t being given to people—but another form, in which prisoners are required to promise not to sue the police department in exchange for their release, is being pushed.

“Hopefully, the mayor will correct the situation,” Brown says. “He’s got the power to do it. Hopefully, these people won’t even be arrested.”

A spokesman for O’Malley would not comment for the record about the press conference or calls for his help in stopping the arrests.

Carter says Kraft’s logic is false. “I’ve been working on this issue since hearing about it from a civilian review board member in February,” she says, adding that her differences with Kraft run down policy lines: Kraft and his group want to manage the arrests better; Carter and her group want to stop the arrests.

Bowden says his encounter with Baltimore police came as he was counseling a drug addict to get out of the game, something he says he does all the time. “People in the neighborhood know me as an activist,” he says. But the police, apparently, don’t.

“I got a lot of anger in me,” Bowden says. “I helped a lot of people get clean.”

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