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Baltimore police chief joins push for end to 'unnecessary incarceration'

Current, former Baltimore top cops attend D.C. summit with collective stance on policing, incarceration.

A group of 130 law enforcement officials from across the country — including newly appointed Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis — called Wednesday for criminal justice reforms aimed at bringing about an end to "unnecessary incarceration."

The coalition, composed of some of the nation's top police commanders and prosecutors, said at a Washington summit that law enforcement should focus on "trigger pullers" and other violent criminals and re-evaluate approaches to low-level drug offenders and those whose run-ins with police are driven by mental illness or addiction.

"We know we can do it and protect public safety at the same time," said Ronal Serpas, co-chair of the Law Enforcement Leaders coalition and former superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department.

The group called for more mental health and drug treatment alternatives to arrest and prosecution. It also called for reducing the number of criminal violations, changing some felonies to misdemeanors, and reducing or eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes. The coalition said law enforcement officers should strengthen ties with the communities they serve.

Davis, whose contract with the city was formally approved Wednesday, said the need for reform has been discussed by police leaders for years, but protests and unrest after the police-involved deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Freddie Gray in Baltimore helped police "turn that corner faster."

"Post-Ferguson, post-unrest in Baltimore, it just made us take that turn more abruptly — necessarily so — than we otherwise would have," Davis said.

The initiative is backed by a mix of police leaders — including those in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington — as well as prosecutors, though no current prosecutors in Maryland are listed as members.

Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby, the lead prosecutor in Baltimore, could not be reached for comment.

Leaders of the group are expected to meet Thursday with President Barack Obama at the White House.

On Wednesday, they said the shift is about being smart, not weak, on crime.

It might seem radical to some, said Garry McCarthy, superintendent of the Chicago Police Department, but it "doesn't make sense" to give a street-level heroin dealer the same prison sentence as a robber who uses a gun.

"What we're saying is, we want to arrest the right criminals for the right crimes," said Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck.

The initiative comes amid a bipartisan search in Congress and Annapolis for solutions to high incarceration levels. State lawmakers are reviewing sentencing guidelines and parole and probation processes.

Coalition members did not outline specific legislation they support but said they intend to work with Congress on reforms.

The initiative — with its focus on improving police and community relations — also comes amid simmering tensions surrounding Davis' appointment as chief. Protests have continued against police brutality since the death of Gray from spinal injuries suffered in police custody. His death in April sparked widespread protests and led to rioting, looting and arson.

A shift away from focusing on low-level crime signals a departure from the stop-and-frisk, "broken window" policies that aim to stop small crimes considered precursors to more serious offenses. In Baltimore under then-Mayor Martin O'Malley, now a Democratic presidential candidate, such policing tactics led to mass arrests in the 2000s for such offenses as open-container violations and loitering.

McCarthy said police should still address low-level violations and conduct street enforcement — "Sometimes you catch a big fish when you put out that net" — but should also be given alternatives to arrest.

Davis said police officers should be given more discretion as to when to make an arrest.

As an example, he cited a sit-in by protesters at City Hall last week, in which 16 people — including three juveniles — were arrested on charges of trespassing. The protesters had refused to leave a balcony in the City Council chambers and demanded a meeting with Davis or Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

Neither was willing to meet with the protesters under those conditions. Davis said he did not want to arrest anyone but had no choice.

"As we consulted with the state's attorney's office and our own legal advisers, we didn't have an alternative to arrest. We couldn't cite and release, for instance," he said. "Lawmakers need to look at existing laws and amend them."

Crime is at its lowest level in the United States in decades — even if homicides this year in Baltimore and other cities are way up — but U.S. incarceration rates are the highest in the world, the group said.

Other coalition members with ties to Maryland include Davis' predecessor, former Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts, and former state Attorney General Doug Gansler. Batts did not attend the announcement event; Gansler did.

The group has the support of organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Gansler said with the right buy-in from legislators, prosecutors and judges, the initiative could have a profound effect in Baltimore, especially if it changes street-level policing in a fundamental way.

"If the police are coming up and shaking down people on Druid Hill Avenue just because they're standing there looking funny, that engenders distrust," he said. "But if the police are coming up and arresting a convicted felon in possession of a loaded gun, people applaud that arrest."

krector@baltsun.com

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