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News Maryland Baltimore Crime Beat

City's 'stop and frisk' oversight criticized

Baltimore police say they stopped residents 123,000 times last year but found only nine handguns — a figure civil rights advocates say is so implausible that it raises questions about whether the agency is actually monitoring the conduct of officers on the streets.

"I think what's become apparent is that the department can make no credible assertion at this point about how they are using stop and frisk or what it accomplishes," said Sonia Kumar, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

"It really suggests a lack of supervision and accountability that is so critical in terms of how police are using their authority on the street," she said.

The ACLU recently received department data on 90,000 of the stops that have been analyzed. Another 33,000 haven't been entered into police databases yet.

Police said 494 stops involved a search, leading to 10 weapons of various types — and drugs in another 10 instances. The ACLU request was spurred by concerns over "stop and frisk" searches, though the department has stopped using that term to distance itself from controversy over police tactics in New York City.

ACLU officials said the data suggest that the agency does not track "whether their stops and searches are typically conducted in compliance with the law."

The release of the data followed Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts' appearance on a panel in New York City, where he said he had moved away from aggressive policing in an effort to repair ties with the community. He also claimed to have curbed the use of stop-and-frisk, saying, "That was taking place until I came into the picture.

"But now my murder rate is going up," he said, according to a video of the discussion.

The conversation took place at a mayoral transition forum in New York, where Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio has vowed to move away from stop and frisk tactics. The panelists discussed the potential fallout from moving away from aggressive policing.

"Now the discussion is, 'By you changing that, did you cause that crime rate to go up?' " Batts told the crowd. "That puts me in a political hotbed."

The Baltimore Police Department did not respond to requests for comment about the stop data or for clarification of Batts' comments. He has not previously said he was moving the department away from using stop and frisk but has said the agency must use it properly.

In a Public Information Act request, the ACLU sought summary data on stop and frisk, including memos, analyses and "other documents illustrating supervisory review and management of stop and frisk tactics."

Two months later, the department provided only one-paragraph summary data, and said additional documents would cost thousands of dollars and take months longer.

Baltimore police officers are required to document many interactions on "citizen contact" forms. Those include all vehicle stops — whether or not they result in an arrest or citation — all "involuntary detentions not resulting in arrest," and all stop and frisks.

Additionally, state law requires police to report each "stop and frisk" interaction to Maryland State Police.

The data received by the ACLU covers 2010 to 2012, when the department was overseen by former Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III. It shows police stops had been on the rise, from 59,000 in 2010 to 123,000 in 2012.

During those stops, police said, they rarely searched people and had little to show when they did, according to the department data. Of the 203 searches in 2010, police recovered drugs 18 times, as well as 12 guns and four knives. Of 209 searches in 2011, police recovered drugs nine times and confiscated two guns and one knife.

"It seems highly unlikely that, of 123,221 investigative stops in 2012, only 494 resulted in searches," the civil liberties group wrote in a recent letter to the department. "Nor does it speak well of BPD that the only items it can report recovered out of more than one hundred and twenty thousand stops were 10 controlled dangerous substances, 9 guns and 1 knife."

Kumar said the department "provided broad numbers that kind of make no sense, with zero explanation or zero records to allow anyone else to make sense of their significance." And she said department protocols require the agency to perform audits and exercise general oversight over stop and frisk.

Baltimore Deputy Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez has said police here don't use the tactic the way police do in New York, and moved to change the name to the broader term "investigative stops."

But the ACLU says the agency appears to have little understanding of how officers use their powers.

Batts himself conducted a stop and frisk in September, but experts interviewed by The Baltimore Sun said his example may not meet the standards for such stops. The department has refused to release the form associated with that particular stop.

Bealefeld said in an interview that the agency has long struggled to get officers to accurately document what they do and that efforts had been made to improve data collection, even if it continued to fall short.

"We know that not everybody filled out stop tickets, and you try to take corrective measures and do training and reinforce it constantly," said Bealefeld, who now teaches at Stevenson University. "For certain, that is a problem not just in the BPD, but all police departments."

He said the number of stop and frisks seemed too low, but that "I couldn't guess what that number is.

"One thing I had confidence in is that, while not all the stops were being documented, the system had improved greatly over where it had been," Bealefeld said. "Whether officers were trained sufficiently on 'reasonable suspicion' about conducting a stop and frisk, that's certainly open to question, and an important reason that officers were under my tenure continually trained in these things."

Not long after he took over, Batts disbanded the Violent Crime Impact Section — a signature effort of the Bealefeld era made up of plainclothes officers who focused on drug- and gun-related investigations and had been the source of several citizen complaints over the years.

Batts moved several of the unit's officers into uniformed patrol and created a Special Enforcement Section to replace the disbanded unit. The new group reports to area patrol commanders who police say can better address any claims that officers are overstepping their authority.

Batts told the panel in New York that his agency's former policing strategy led to "high citizen complaints, citizens that have a visceral hatred for police" in its special enforcement zones.

City Councilman Brandon M. Scott, who represents sections of Northeast Baltimore, said Batts' comments let him to wonder whether the department shifted too much of its focus to repairing community relationships instead of aggressive policing.

Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, said he has seen studies suggesting increased violence when police cut back on aggressive policing of illegal guns.

In Pittsburgh, he said, a program where special-unit officers were trained to identify common signs that a person was carrying a concealed weapon led to shootings dropping 71 percent. When the program was discontinued after it lost funding, the level of shootings increased to where it had been before.

But he said there is a "big difference" between the careful use of such special units and the broad-scale stop-and-frisk tactics New York was known for.

"I believe that there is more to the bad blood … than police searching people for guns if they find reasonable cause," Webster said. "Batts is right to focus on repairing relationships with the community, but you can make it risky to carry an illegal gun without harassing or abusing people."

jfenton@baltsun.com

jgeorge@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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