Loitering bill comes under scrutiny; Committee questions need for law affecting public housing


Reviewing a bill to allow police to disperse loiterers in public housing communities, an Annapolis city council committee questioned last night the need for the measure if Housing Authority security guards already have such power.

The city's Public Safety Committee grilled Annapolis Police Chief Joseph Johnson and Alderman Herbert H. McMillan, who wrote the bill, about the need for the anti-drug loitering law, which the council could vote on next month.

The bill aims to create "Drug-Loitering Free Zones" and give police the power to disperse loiterers whose behavior raises suspicion of drug activity, or who have been convicted of drug charges in the past seven years, even if the zones are on private property.

McMillan, a Ward 5 Republican, introduced the bill in May after complaints from Neighborhood Watch leaders that police could not disperse suspected drug dealers from public housing community sidewalks, which are the property of the Annapolis Housing Authority -- a private entity.

Alderman Ellen O. Moyer, a Public Safety Committee member, asked Johnson whether police officers are "handcuffed in any way" from arresting drug dealers on private property.

"In my opinion, we can make arrests for drugs anywhere," replied Johnson. He has emphasized that the department is not taking a position on the bill.

Johnson said the off-duty police officers hired by the Annapolis Housing Authority to patrol public housing communities "have been moving a great deal of loiterers along."

McMillan defended his bill, saying residents of public housing communities within his ward feel the housing authority security force doesn't seem to be large enough to eradicate the drug-loitering problem in their neighborhoods.

"The problem is, the off-duty police officers nowhere meet the need that they have," McMillan said. "The people who live there are citizens, and they are entitled to have people working on duty as police officers in their communities all the time."

McMillan's bill has been mired in debate since it was introduced. Annapolis Housing Authority director Patricia Croslan and the city's Neighborhood Watch group support the bill, which they believe will help close the open-air drug markets that vex some neighborhoods.

But the American Civil Liberties Union and community groups have protested the bill, arguing that it would give police officers the opportunity to harass black people on the street.

These opponents were unswayed even after McMillan unveiled amendments to his bill last week that would require communities to request a "Drug-Loitering Free Zone" before police could enforce a new law.

The bill also specifies that commercial property owners could ask that their sites be designated such zones, which McMillan said could protect businesses, such as grocery stores, on whose parking lots drug dealers sometimes ply their trade.

But Ward 4 Alderman Samuel Gilmer said grocery store owners could depend on their own security force to disperse loiterers.

"They can't be everywhere at once," McMillan countered. "And not everybody can have a private security force."

Gilmer also expressed concern that police could unfairly target everyone who has been convicted of drug charges.

"For example, a seller, he goes to jail and he comes out and maybe he wants to change his way of life," Gilmer said. "Now he's going to be hounded if he stands on the corner?"

McMillan emphasized that he is trying to protect his constituents.

"Quite frankly, I have no problem at all with neighbors who want to go outside and chat," McMillan said. "But a lot of the people who want to go outside and chat can't do that any more because they are harassed by other people engaging in illegal activity."

Pub Date: 9/30/99

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