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Baltimore Police officers to use discretion for low-level arrests to limit coronavirus exposure

Baltimore Police are encouraging officers to use discretion for low-level arrests to limit coronavirus exposure, department officials announced Thursday, a day after Baltimore’s State’s Attorney said she would drop minor cases.

“For the safety of our residents and officers, the Baltimore Police Department is assessing and evaluating what calls-for-service our officers will be responding to in order to minimize the potential for exposure to COVID-19,” the police department statement said. “This includes giving guidance to officers in using their discretion to further minimize arrests on low-level and non-violent offenses, especially those outlined in the State’s Attorney letter.”

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The statement comes a day after Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced her office would stop prosecuting cases for drug possession, attempted distribution of any drug, prostitution, trespassing, minor traffic offenses, open container and urinating in public.

Mosby said the decision was made to reduce the threat of a coronavirus outbreak behind bars. It covers individuals charged with low-level crimes who pose no risk to public safety and under normal circumstances be released before trial, she said.

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“An outbreak in prison or jails could potentially be catastrophic,” Mosby said. “Now is not the time for a piecemeal approach where we go into court and argue one one by one for the release of at-risk individuals."

Mosby’s directive left some defense attorneys in Baltimore waiting to see if their clients will be set free. But her temporary policy only applies to new arrests and only those held at Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center.

She also wrote Gov. Larry Hogan and asked him to release such prisoners from state corrections facilities.

Internally, Baltimore Police advised officers that they can continue to charge people for low-level offenses using arrest warrants, and with approval of a lieutenant.

“We are not limiting an officer’s discretion to effectuate an arrest; however, in the interest of public health and the health all our members, the BPD needs take steps to reduce COVID-19 exposure and contact that contributes to the spread of the virus,” wrote Michael Sullivan, the department’s deputy of operations, in the memo distributed to officers Wednesday and obtained by The Baltimore Sun. “Additionally, in light of the State’s Attorney’s public statement and procedures adopted at Central Booking, BPD is outlining steps to pursue law enforcement objectives while decreasing opportunity for the spread of the COVID-19 virus."

Officers are instructed to detain an offender, confirm the person’s identity, complete an application for charges or other necessary reports, before releasing them.

Additionally, the memo said officers are to “Consult with a Lieutenant or above to determine whether seeking criminal charges through an arrest warrant application is appropriate while balancing resource constraints and public harm.”

Similarly, Philadelphia’s police commissioner said this week that officers there would continue to arrest individuals for low-level offenses but would process them on an arrest warrant and release them.

The changes come as departments across the country are considering measures to limit exposure to the coronavirus among officers and other first responders.

Baltimore Police officials last week said the department was ordering additional personal protective equipment, such as masks, for officers who must interact with potentially infected individuals. The city also required 911 call takers to screen calls to determine if they might involve an infected person.

The department also closed its headquarters and district buildings to the public.

As the number of confirmed coronavirus cases is expected to rise, Baltimore continues to grapple with high levels of violence and a dwindling number of officers. On Tuesday, a gunman opened fire on a group of people, injuring seven, and four others were injured in three shootings across the city Wednesday.

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The city has counted 61 homicides this year, and 114 non-fatal shootings, on pace with last year when the city recorded 348 homicides, the highest rate in its history.

Baltimore Sun reporters Justin Fenton and Tim Prudente contributed to this story.

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