Nearly 20 percent of arrests made by Baltimore police for low-level, "quality-of-life" crimes haven't been properly documented, according to a new audit that a civil liberties group says understates the agency's shortcomings in meeting terms of a legal settlement.
Independent auditor Charles Wellford, a University of Maryland criminologist, sampled about 1,100 arrests from April to December 2011 and found that 17 percent of reports written by officers did not support a finding of probable cause. Wellford, appointed as part of a 2010 settlement in a lawsuit over the agency's "zero-tolerance" policies, said the agency was making progress despite falling short of overall goals.
The audit included arrests in which police approached someone for a minor offense — such as loitering or trespassing — and found a more serious infraction, such as drugs or a weapon.
The American Civil Liberties Union, a plaintiff in the original lawsuit, said Monday that if those arrests were not included, the number of cases in which officers did not provide proper documentation increases to 35 percent. And it noted that records from another 230 expunged cases, in which the arrestee was released without charges, were not made available to the auditor.
The ACLU accused the agency of attempting to skew the numbers and of violating the settlement by withholding records.
"The ACLU insisted on an independent auditor because we were worried that the Baltimore Police Department would not live up to its settlement obligations in the absence of oversight," David Rocah, staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland, said in a statement. "The first status report shows that our skepticism was well placed, and demonstrates a police department that is not making a good faith or effective effort to correct its wrongdoing."
Wellford disagreed with the civil liberties group's conclusions, saying he believed the department is trying in good faith to comply. In most cases where he determined the officers' reports weren't in compliance, Wellford said, the officers had not explained why they didn't pursue alternatives to an arrest, such as "counseling," verbal warnings, and written citations.
"For the most part, they're stating probable cause for the arrest, but not stating as to why an alternative wasn't considered," said Wellford, who submitted the audit Monday. "It doesn't mean they didn't do it, it just means it wasn't stated in the report."
Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi referred questions to the agency's chief legal counsel, Mark Grimes, who did not return messages.
The ACLU and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People filed the lawsuit in 2006 on behalf of 14 people who alleged that their arrests indicated a pattern in which thousands of people were routinely arrested without probable cause during the tenure of then-Mayor Martin O'Malley.
As part of the $870,000 settlement, the Police Department, under CommissionerFrederick H. Bealefeld III, formally said it was rejecting "zero-tolerance policing." It agreed to institute training and new directives to avoid low-level arrests when possible.
The number of arrests since then has plummeted — since 2005, when a peak of about 110,000 people were arrested, the number has declined to about 50,000 last year.
Last year alone, the number of people who were arrested and released without charges declined by about 70 percent from the previous year, according to preliminary police statistics.
Reacting to Wellford's first report, the ACLU said it believes that the records withheld on those arrested and released without charges greatly skews the overall picture and had led in part to the lawsuit "in the first place."
Prosecutors tend to decline to charge in cases where the statement of probable cause is insufficient, meaning that leaving such records out of the review would eliminate a large number of cases that were not properly handled, Rocah said.
The police department has also failed to implement a new computer program that tracks quality-of-life arrests and citizen complaints against officers, which advocates say will flag officers who trigger a high number of complaints or poorly written reports.
Wellford said that of the 35 areas agreed to in the settlement, the department was in compliance or making progress in 33.
Rocah, in an interview, disagreed. "In some areas, [the auditor] gave them credit for trying. But on key measures of progress regarding issues that led to this lawsuit, it seems crystal clear to me that they have not come close to full compliance."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun