At the height of the Baltimore Police Department's experiment with zero-tolerance policing in 2005, the number of people arrested reached six figures— a statistic that sparked protests and came to symbolize what critics called a misguided policy of mass arrests.
Prosecutors not only criticized the arrests for minor infractions such as loitering and drinking in public, they declined to file formal charges in about a third of the cases.
Now, a police commissioner armed with a strategy of more targeted enforcement of violent gun offenders has the department on track to record half as many arrests as five years ago — with the added benefit of crime going down.
Just as important, the number of cases tossed by prosecutors in the immediate aftermath of arrests has plunged to less than 8 percent this year.
For police, the numbers represent the first significant proof that a shift away from arresting people for petty crimes — under the guise of lowering crime by instilling fear — has worked, even if some people in neighborhoods feel the police are not tough enough.
"We've been working on this for the past four years, and we're finally starting to see it improved," police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said.
Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III has said he has reduced the number of arrests while also seeing the number of homicides drop to a 20-year low, and significant drops in other categories such as shootings.
Bealefeld declined interview requests for this article. But in 2007, the year he took over amid soaring crime rates, he called the number of arrests being made by officers in earlier years, "mind-boggling," and he asked, "Did we really accomplish a lot doing that?"
But some complain the pendulum has swung to the other extreme — police aren't doing enough to quell violence.
Israel Cason, executive director of the I Can't, We Can drug treatment program in Park Heights, said it is less common to see police "slamming people on the ground, emptying their pockets on the street."
"You don't see that too much no more," he said.
The downside, he said, is that drug dealers are congregating on street corners again without getting challenged.
"They know what [the drug dealers] are doing, but [the police] don't do nothing," Cason said. Referring to free samples of drugs that dealers circulate through the community, he said: "We got testers out here every day, the police stand right there with them. They went from one extreme to the other."
Ellsworth Johnson-Bey, who leads the Fraternal Order of Ex-Offenders, said police are still targeting people in high-crime areas, but he believes those interactions are less likely to result in an arrest and trip to Central Booking.
"They've got the hook," he said of police contact with suspected criminals. "But they can't get the fish," he said of them not making arrests.
The legal director of the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and a former assistant state's attorney who reviewed charges filed by city police attributed the drop in so-called "declined cases" to a philosophical shift by new leadership in the state's attorney's office.
"The police [department] didn't suddenly revolutionize itself," said Page Croyder, a former deputy state's attorney in Baltimore. "They have had Bealefeld in place for several years now, touting his new policies. It's the [state's attorney's office] administration that is new."
Elizabeth Embry, the deputy prosecutor under newly elected State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein, disputes that conclusion. She said the office more carefully reviews "quality-of-life crimes," along with defendants' criminal history and concerns from the community before summarily dismissing charges.
But Embry said prosecutors are not taking on a significantly larger number of nuisance crimes that would explain the new numbers. She said police this year have arrested 4,600 fewer people on misdemeanor drug and nuisance crimes, fueling the decline in both arrests and in dropped cases.
This year alone, the number of people arrested and then released without being charged stands at 1,200, down 78 percent compared with this time last year.
Statistics show that more than 98,000 adults were arrested by city police in 2005, with 76,500 of them called "on view" arrests, meaning without warrants. Those are subject to review by prosecutors at the city's Central Booking facility, and that year they released slightly more than 25,000 without filing charges.
In 2010, police arrested 62,341 adults, with about 42,000 being "on view." Prosecutors released 6,063 of them without filing charges. So far this year, police have made just over 16,000 "on view" arrests, and prosecutors have freed 1,214, or 7.5 percent.
"While our office's increased scrutiny of nuisance crimes and improved collaboration with police are contributing factors in the decline in the number of defendants released without charges," Embry said, "the decline is primarily driven by the overall decrease in misdemeanor arrests."
The argument over how to best police Baltimore — which consistently ranks among the top in per-capita murders in the country, even with the recent declines — has been part of the political debate for years.
Martin O'Malley brought in zero tolerance when he became mayor in 2000, promising a get-tough policing strategy to replace what had been considered years of softer law enforcement under his predecessor, Kurt L. Schmoke.
The very term zero tolerance instilled fear in majority black Baltimore, with many worrying it gave license to police to run roughshod over citizens' rights. Politicians disavowed "zero tolerance," replacing the term with the more acceptable "quality-of-life" initiative.
Disagreements over the plan, modeled after an aggressive policing style in New York, cost O'Malley his first police commissioner when Ronald L. Daniel resigned after serving just 39 days. The mayor replaced the Baltimore native with a New Yorker, Edward T. Norris.
But as arrest totals climbed in the mid-2000s, and the number of dropped cases climbed and became more widely known, civil liberties organizations and politicians began drawing more attention to the issue. Many people complained of having their reputations stained by arrests that didn't result in charges, so changes were made to streamline the expungement process.
In January 2006, then-Mayor O'Malley and his police commissioner, Leonard Hamm, tried to defend the policy before a raucous crowd at the War Memorial Building. The top prosecutor at the time, Patricia C. Jessamy, told citizens that her office had a responsibility to ensure the city did not "trample on the Constitution" and said she wouldn't "rubber stamp arrests that are not appropriate."
The backlash came when the ACLU and the NAACP filed a lawsuit in 2006 alleging that the arrest practices were illegal and unfairly targeted minorities. The plaintiffs brought powerful stories — a teenager who had never been in trouble arrested for dropping a candy wrapper while sitting on his aunt's steps, and another young man hauled off to Central Booking for standing on a sidewalk with his friend.
The city settled the suit, and the $870,000 price tag proved expensive for a city strapped for cash and cutting back on its police force. Police promised to improve arrest practices and develop new training for handling "quality-of-life" crimes, including lower-level methods of resolving them such as warnings or citations.
An independent monitor was appointed to oversee the department's progress. The monitor, who is still working, has yet to issue his first report.
David Rocah, a staff attorney for the ACLU, said he was hopeful that the settlement was paying dividends, as evidenced by the drop in arrests. Still, he wasn't sure it could explain such sharp declines.
"I think the city and the police department have begun grappling with the concrete things it needs to do to comply with the settlement," he said. "But there's a certainly a question of whether that could explain a drop of that magnitude."
Adult arrests by Baltimore police, the number of cases reviewed by prosecutors, and the number of people released without charges
*As of June 14 **As of June 29
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SOURCE: Baltimore Police Department; Baltimore State's Attorney's Office