Arrests for minor crimes spur resentment in some Baltimore neighborhoods

Arrest on a minor crime can have a lasting impact, Baltimoreans say.

For Tayvon Wiggins, applying for a job brings almost certain disappointment.

"I go through the interview process, but as soon as they check my background, I can't pass it," the West Baltimore man said. He has been convicted of minor traffic violations but believes the real problem stems from other arrests that remain on his record even though they were never prosecuted.

Wiggins, who has been working odd jobs as he moves to get those records expunged, illustrates the frustration felt by some Baltimoreans who have trouble finding employment because of arrests, including those for minor charges such as trespassing. The issue, which has sparked resentment in West Baltimore and other neighborhoods for years, has received new attention in the aftermath of Freddie Gray's death.

State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby contends that Gray, who sustained a fatal spinal injury while in police custody, was arrested illegally because officers patrolling in West Baltimore failed to establish probable cause. He was detained near the corner of North Avenue and Mount Street a month after Mosby's office asked police for enhanced drug enforcement in that area.

Some residents complain that "clearing the corner" — a practice of making arrests on minor offenses to disperse people in drug-infested areas or to investigate more serious crimes — is a law enforcement strategy that continues to harm residents and has contributed to a distrust of police. Though charges are often dropped by prosecutors, the arrests can remain on records for years. That has helped to drive up the number of statewide expungements, as Marylanders try to cleanse records that may be reviewed by potential employers.

Baltimore police counter that they have abandoned the zero-tolerance strategy that led to mass arrests — and a 2006 lawsuit by the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Statistics bear out that assertion. The number of arrests for minor crimes such as failure to obey, loitering and disorderly conduct has dropped significantly across Baltimore — from 5,401 in 2005 to 2,016 last year. There are also fewer cases in which police make arrests only to see prosecutors release them without charges; there were 10,844 such cases in 2009 and 956 last year.

Baltimore police are now targeting the "worst of the worst," said Col. Darryl DeSousa, who until recently headed the patrol division. Minor nuisance offenses are increasingly addressed with citations rather than arrests, he said.

Still, many Baltimoreans complain that police continue to enforce nuisance laws unfairly.

Although police officials have disavowed the mass-arrest strategy, African-Americans are still being arrested disproportionately for minor crimes, according to a Baltimore Sun analysis of city data. Blacks make up 64 percent of the city's population but accounted for 93 percent of loitering arrests and 84 percent of trespass arrests in 2014.

"The reason why the arrest disparity is so high is that police are posted all over in our neighborhoods," said the Rev. Cortly "C.D." Witherspoon, a West Baltimore clergyman and president of the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "It's like a police state."

The issue was one focus of a federal review of policing in Ferguson, Mo., where rioting followed the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen, on Aug. 9, 2014.

In March, the U.S. Department of Justice found that Ferguson police systematically discriminated against black residents, disproportionately charging them with minor offenses such as "manner of walking."

The racial disparity in arrests was one factor that led the Justice Department to conclude that Ferguson police broke federal law and violated residents' constitutional rights. Another major factor was a systemic financial incentive to arrest and detain individuals.

Ferguson has since replaced its police chief and initiated reforms.

Spokeswoman Dena Iverson said the Justice Department will be scrutinizing arrest data in Baltimore as part of a wide-ranging civil rights investigation of city police. A question for federal officials — who are also examining allegations of police brutality — is whether the arrest disparity is racially motivated.

DeSousa, who is black, said the disparity in Baltimore arrests is not an accurate reflection of police strategy. "We are not looking at whether the perpetrator is black or white," he said.

Police experts note that some neighborhoods, including parts of West Baltimore, have a greater police presence because that is where homicides, shootings and other major crimes are concentrated.

This year, as the city experiences a spike in homicides — already surpassing the total for 2014 — most of the killings have occurred in impoverished sections of East and West Baltimore.

The zero-tolerance policing policy was instituted in an era when Baltimore was recording more than 300 homicides a year. Then-Mayor Martin O'Malley, who later became governor and is now seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, has defended the policy, crediting it with having helped to reduce homicides and other crimes.

But the policy also sparked criticism. In 2005, police made approximately 100,000 arrests in a city of 640,000 people. More than 23,000 were released without being charged by prosecutors.

Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham, president of the local NAACP branch at the time, said he was overwhelmed by black residents complaining about petty arrests. So the NAACP, along with the ACLU, collaborated in suing the police.

The plaintiffs included several young black men arrested for minor infractions such as dropping a candy wrapper or talking to a friend on the sidewalk. But the list of plaintiffs could have been 10 pages long, Cheatham said.

In 2010, the city agreed to pay $870,000 to settle the lawsuit but did not acknowledge any wrongdoing by police.

Soon after the lawsuit was filed, the number of arrests began to fall.

But the zero-tolerance policing policy has had a lasting impact, decimating the black workforce in Baltimore, said Mark Matthews, CEO of Clean Slate America Inc., which helps people expunge certain criminal records. "It's created child poverty, hunger, homelessness," he said. "Its outcomes are more far-reaching still today than people realize."

As a condition of the lawsuit's settlement, an independent auditor has monitored police data. The most recent audit, completed in December, found that Baltimore police were doing a better job of documenting probable cause and offering alternatives to arrests for low-level crimes.

David Rocah, the ACLU lawyer in charge of the case, said the racial disparity in arrests for minor offenses could be due to a greater police presence in black neighborhoods.

"Not that that excuses the disparities," he said, "It just helps to explain. The disparity in policing different neighborhoods is part of the problem."

Adam Braskich, a Baltimore police officer from 2007 to 2011, recalls a constant pressure to clear people from corners, where drug-dealing often occurred. He said officers resorted to creative measures, making arrests on charges such as loitering, disorderly conduct and trespassing, even though the legal elements of the crime were not always present.

Braskich, who recently graduated from Harvard Law School and is now an attorney in Washington, said officers knew that the tactics disproportionately affected African-Americans because the most aggressive policing occurred in poor neighborhoods where crime rates were the highest.

"By and large, Baltimore police officers don't enjoy pushing people around and making petty arrests," he said. "If they felt less pressure to clear corners and generate stats, especially in poor, high-crime neighborhoods, then they could focus on more constructive police work."

After Mosby's office requested to target the corner of North and Mount, then-Western District commander Maj. Osborne Robinson emailed officers, instructing them to begin a "daily narcotics initiative" and noting that their "daily measurables" would be evaluated.

Lt. Kenneth Butler, president of the Vanguard Justice Society, a group for Baltimore's minority and female officers, said such an order was a call for "increased productivity, whether it be car stops, field interviews, arrests."

In 2012, the union that represents Baltimore police officers published a "Better Policing" report that called for the department to "discontinue the practice of rewarding statistically driven arrests."

More recently, a city police lieutenant has criticized police officials for their past policies. In an email, Lt. Victor Gearhart widely distributed among officers a document titled "How to answer Police Critics with talking points in the era of Freddie Gray."

One talking point read: "The various Mayors and Police Commissioners have been telling the members of the Baltimore City Police Department to break the law by unlawfully stopping, frisking and searching known criminals and drug addicts for years."

Gearhart, a night-shift commander in the Southern District, said the talking points, which he pulled from op-ed pieces and Web posts, reflect the frustrations of many officers.

"Is having a beer on the sidewalk a crime?" the 33-year police veteran said in an interview. "Where I live, or you live, you'll have a beer or glass of wine. It's not a crime. It's a social condition."

He said many officers don't like going to places such as West Baltimore and making such minor arrests, which they know breed resentment.

Jeff Fagen, a Columbia Law School professor who analyzed data for the Justice Department in Ferguson, said minor arrests such as trespass, loitering and having an open alcohol container — often called "quality of life arrests" — are "simply nonsense" as a tactic for fighting crime. "It's about social control, not safety," he said.

In New York City, police officials have touted the department's stop-and-frisk practice as a successful tool to combat violent and gun-related crime. But studies that measure the resulting arrests have found the strategy discriminatory and lacking in effectiveness.

For example, only 0.1 percent of stops from 2009 to 2012 led to a conviction for a crime of violence, according to a New York attorney general's study of 150,000 stop-and-frisk arrests. Another study by the attorney general's office found that even when controlling for crime rates in neighborhoods where police are more heavily deployed, minorities were stopped at a disproportionately higher rate.

The Center for Constitutional Rights sued the New York City Police Department in 2012, alleging that its policies unfairly targeted young black and Latino men. The stop-and-frisk tactics were ruled unconstitutional in 2013, and the city has pulled back from the practice as appeals move forward.

Fagen said more detailed analysis would be needed to determine whether the racial disparity in Baltimore arrests for minor crimes is a sign of racial bias.

That would require analyzing crime rates and other data on where the arrests occur. However, such a calculation is difficult in Baltimore, because arrest data often lack geographic information. Only about half of the online arrest records in 2015 include a specific address.

Interim Police Commissioner Kevin Davis has said one of his priorities is improving relationships between Baltimore police and residents.

The Police Department has programs designed to accomplish that goal. In 2014, officers began training in fair and impartial policing, a program promoted by the Justice Department to mitigate racial bias.

DeSousa said police are focused on making more targeted arrests for serious crimes. "We don't do the city any justice by zero-tolerance policing."

Some black activists remain skeptical.

Cheatham, now president of the Matthew A. Henson Neighborhood Association in West Baltimore, wants police to spend more time on serious drug cases instead of arresting people for urination or open-container offenses. He believes the heavy weighting of blacks in minor arrests reflects a disparity in the way police enforce the law.

"I'm not blaming the police for everything," Cheatham said. "We have problems within our community," he added, referring to the open-air drug markets in his West Baltimore neighborhood.

At Clean Slate America, which is based near Mondawmin Mall, Matthews said all of Baltimore and its police commissioners will experience the same high homicide rates and low levels of community cooperation until the broken relationship between police and residents is healed. "How can you communicate with police when they view you as someone about to commit a crime?"

Matthews said police yelled at his son a few months ago for standing outside a convenience store while waiting for him. "They just yelled at him, asking him what he was doing and then to get inside with his dad. It's disrespect."

One late-summer evening, Matthews weeded through stacks of folders full of arrest records. He estimated that over the course a year he goes through more than 5,000 arrest records. If he cannot help someone with the expungement process, he said, they end up with a lifetime of complications getting a job, qualifying for housing, or maintaining a family.

"They'll never enter the mainstream," he said.

That evening, Brittany, a 25-year-old mother, stood before him. She had arrests for trespass and possession of drug paraphernalia on her record. Neither led to a conviction, but the charges had scared away employers, and she had dropped out of school and lost her way, she said.

"I started going back to the street because I couldn't get a job with my charges," said the woman, who did not want her full name used because she was seeking an expungement and did not want a potential employer to know about her arrest record.

She spent two weeks in jail before she could raise bail on charges that were eventually dismissed. She eventually got a job that paid $7.50 an hour and training for a higher-paying position that would support her two boys.

Over the past 10 years, the number of arrests that have been expunged has doubled statewide — from 16,677 in 2005 to 33,357 in 2014. Matthews and others helping with the process attribute the trend to the fact that arrest records are increasingly visible to employers, landlords and school officials — and thus increasingly detrimental to residents.

Gesturing to the papers surrounding him, he said, "Every single one of these files is a person's life."

That night, he gave Brittany some good news. He said the state is likely to clear both arrests off her record, allowing her to move toward a nursing certificate.

crentz@baltsun.com

Analyzing the data

The Baltimore Sun obtained arrest records from Open Baltimore and the city Police Department. The Sun analyzed the racial disparity of all arrests, and those considered "quality of life" arrests as defined in the ACLU and NAACP 2010 settlement with police. Such quality of life arrests include loitering, trespassing, public urination/defecation, open container, disorderly conduct (particularly failure to obey and disturbing the peace), hindering and littering.

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