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Copping Out

A City Council Report on False Arrests by Baltimore Police Fails to Address the Root of the Problem

Frank Klein
STREET SWEEPER: City Councilman James B. Kraft says that loitering arrests are on the rise because getting people off the corners is "what the community wants to do."

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 10/5/2005

In Baltimore, the fight over improper arrests is a fight between two realities: “Mrs. Jones” vs. the U.S. Constitution.

So far, Mrs. Jones is winning.

Mrs. Jones is Baltimore City Councilman James B. Kraft’s shorthand for the upstanding citizen who wants the boys taken off the corner. The 1st District Democrat says he hears every month from constituents who complain about drug dealing or other activities.

So city police officers arrest the men on the corner. They arrest everyone on the street, and all the people sitting on the stoops. If they don’t find any drugs, they charge the arrestees with loitering or failure to obey a police officer and take them to Central Booking. “Many of those loitering arrests are just getting those people off the streets,” Kraft says, “because that’s what the community wants to do.”

Then these arrestees—about 1,800 of them every month—are released without formal charges being filed. The numbers of arrests—and the percentage of those released without charges—has been increasing steadily since 2002. Last week The Sun reported that figures for July 2005 were the highest since June 2002, when these figures began being compiled, with 2,824 cases going uncharged out of 7,697 arrests.

The arrests are to placate the Mrs. Joneses of Baltimore, who hold jobs and pay taxes and vote for people like Jim Kraft. “Let’s deal with the reality,” Kraft told a group of about 60 people gathered on Sept. 26 for the NAACP Baltimore City Branch’s monthly membership meeting at the Union Baptist Church in Upton.

But Kraft would not acknowledge the reality of the Supreme Court, which ruled three decades ago that police cannot arrest people for standing on the street corner—not even if Mrs. Jones down the block doesn’t like them, not even if they’re black and wearing long white T-shirts.

Kraft, a first-term councilman and lawyer formerly with the public defender’s office, would not address the Constitution at the hearing. Baltimore Police Commissioner Leonard Hamm would not address it, either.

Kraft was invited to speak at the meeting, along with the police commissioner, plus Del. Jill P. Carter (D-41st District), local attorney Warren Brown, and others, including David Rocah, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. According to the flier announcing the discussion, the NAACP meeting was aimed toward “finding immediate and viable solutions,” to reduce the number of police arrests. A focal point of the discussion was a report issued in mid-September by the City Counciý’s Public Safety Subcommittee, which Kraft chairs. Before it was released, Kraft had said it would address and even debunk claims that Baltimore police officers, in arresting some 22,000 people each year who are released without being charged with a crime, are creating an epidemic of “false arrest.”

But Kraft’s report does not address the arrests. Instead, the report details the Baltimore Police Department’s Performance Enhancement Program—a retraining initiative designed, among other things, to improve beat cops’ arrest-report-writing skills. The report also details one problem people face after they are falsely arrested: getting their arrest records expunged.

Arrestees now receive a form that allows them to request expungement, though they have to give up their right to sue the department for false arrest, Warren Brown says.

The lack of focus on the arrests themselves is the report’s key weakness, Rocah says.

“The critically important thing, unacknowledged by city and police officials, is that tens of thousands of people are being arrested unlawfully,” he told the group. “There has been no effective acknowledgement of this issue by officials, so there has been no effective solution proposed.”

Besides those 30 percent of all warrantless city arrestees who are freed without charges being filed, another 30 percent of the remaining arrestees are charged, but then see all charges dismissed by the judge or magistrate, Rocah says. The total adds up to nearly 50 percent of all warrantless arrests by Baltimore police. “It is a shocking figure,” Rocah says. Yet “we don’t even have acknowledgement that there is a problem here.”

Hamm said that he “clearly recognized we have a crisis” when he took over the police department last winter. That’s why he instituted a retraining program for the department. Hamm maintains that the disputed arrests are not “illegal,” but merely valid busts for which the officer did not write a good report stating the probable cause for arrest. “We had gotten away from best practices in the police academy,” Hamm said. He promised to retrain those who need it, and discipline police officers “who know better and are doing it wrong anyway.”

Rocah said at the NAACP meeting that the data belies Hamm’s claim, because 30 percent of the arrests that go uncharged are for loitering. “Thirty years ago the Supreme Court found laws against simple loitering unconstitutional,” Rocah said. “Why? Because all of us loiter,” so the law makes everyone a criminal, subject to arrest on the whims and moods of the cop on the beat.

Because the Supreme Court has found the underlying law invalid, anyone in Baltimore—or anywhere else—arrested for loitering (and not additionally charged with prostitution or drug offenses) is by definition falsely arrested.

Rocah explained that a second big category of arrests that go uncharged is for “failure to obey” a police officer. “The average officer in Baltimore doesn’t have a clue as to what constitutes a lawful failure-to-obey arrest,” Rocah said. “They think that if they tell someone to do something, and they don’t do it, then they can arrest them. That’s not the law.”

Rodney Orange, head of the NAACP Baltimore City Branch’s political-action committee, moderated the panel, but he also jumped in with his own question. Last month, Orange said, he was ordered by a cop to park his car and get a ride home, despite passing a field sobriety test. “‘Because I said so,’” he said the cop told him. “How does a citizen know what is a legitimate order?” Orange asked.

Hamm urged Orange to report such incidents immediately. The police commissioner said Orange never mentioned the incident until three weeks later, by which time it was impossible for the police department to trace which officer was involved. But Hamm did not detail for the NAACP crowd what, exactly, constitutes a legitimate police order vs. an arbitrary abuse of police authority. And he did not explain how—or if—his department would use the data it already has to determine which officers are making bad arrests. Rocah says the department could do so simply by matching its own database of arrests with the database at Central Booking, which details what happens to cases after the arrests.

Hamm told the NAACP audience that he was supervising his officers closely. “We have sent out memos detailing what is acceptable and what is not,” he said.

The meeting broke up before everyone got to ask his or her questions. No “immediate and viable solutions” that the program promised to look for were found.

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