'Quality of life' crime plan splits police, prosecutors

Baltimore police officers have drastically increased their enforcement of so-called "quality of life" crimes during their first year and a half under Commissioner Kevin P. Clark, issuing a record number of citations and boosting the number of arrests.

"We look at all illegal behavior and attack it in any way we can," Clark says.


But the more people police send through the front door of the criminal justice system, the more cases prosecutors are tossing out. Since Clark took the helm, prosecutors are dismissing far more than half of all criminal citations, a marked increase. They're also declining to prosecute a higher percentage of arrest cases.

City prosecutors say more than half of the citations aren't legally sufficient - police officers often cite the wrong laws, don't give adequate warnings to offenders or fail to provide enough evidence.


The commissioner says that he would rather see the cases prosecuted and that he will improve citation-writing training, if necessary. But he insists he isn't shaken by the dismissals. "We're still accomplishing what we want."

Therein lies the debate as to whether Clark's enforcement plan for such minor crimes as loitering, possessing an open container of alcohol and riding a bicycle on the sidewalk is improving Baltimore's neighborhoods - even if charges are being dismissed.

"We're at a point where we need to assess whether the plan has done what they designed it to do," says City State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, who adds that she's not sure it has.

Criminal justice experts say it's possible to stem some quality-of-life crimes without prosecution, but they also caution against damaging relations between police and communities. And they warn that Baltimore's statistics appear to indicate a troubling rift between the city's police force and its prosecutors.

In pursuit of Clark's crime-fighting strategy, bicycle Officer John Brandt starts his shift at 9:30 a.m. on a steamy day this month, checking an alley behind the former Greyhound bus station.

He finds 57-year-old Frederick Jennings, who spends his nights on the city's streets and is sipping a 22-ounce Steel Reserve beer wrapped in bags.

This is the type of enforcement Clark pushes. By writing a citation, Brandt can quickly return to patrolling. Arresting an offender and waiting for transportation to jail can take an hour or more.

In less than 15 minutes, Brandt hands a citation to Jennings, makes the man pour out his beer and returns to patrol. Jennings is due in court Aug. 2.


'Broken windows'

Criminologists say Clark's approach to clearing city street corners grows from the "broken windows" theory, a policing model developed in the mid-1980s that says cleansing the environment helps deter criminal acts. That means eliminating graffiti and broken windows, as well as sweeping loiterers, panhandlers and people drinking alcohol off the streets.

The concept leads to higher citation and arrest totals, especially when combined with Baltimore's ComStat policing method - a statistically driven, New York-designed style that calls for continuously monitoring and mapping crime, then developing strategies to combat hot spots.

In 2002, the year before Clark arrived, police made 102,027 arrests. In 2003, officers made 107,373 arrests - a 5.2 percent increase, according to police. The pace has slowed this year, police data show.

In 2002, police have records of issuing 5,288 citations, though they say their records may not include all citations. Last year, they issued 22,071 citations - a 317 percent increase. They're on pace to issue as many this year, according to police statistics.

Since his arrival, Clark has added a new kind of citation to the police repertoire - a civil version that carries fines but no criminal penalty for minor offenses such as public urination.


Though the homicide numbers have remained steady since Clark's arrival, he and Mayor Martin O'Malley both boast a continued decrease in violent crime.

Clark attributes some of the decrease to improved quality-of-life policing. He says someone is less likely to loiter if he knows he's going to be arrested or issued a citation, even if the charges are dismissed in court.

It's an argument that experts endorse - to some extent.

James Fox, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University in Boston, said stepped-up enforcement makes it more inconvenient to loiter or urinate in an alley.

"Part of the deterrent here is that there's some response by police," Fox says. "They're not ignoring it."

But Ralph B. Taylor, author of Breaking Away from Broken Windows, a book about crime-fighting strategies in Baltimore, questions the long-term effect.


"He is disrupting their lives and getting them, for a short period of time, off the street," Taylor says. "Then they're back out there and then what? Are they going to change their behavior at all?"

Straining relations

Criminologists also caution about the downside of such enforcement.

Arrests and citations that don't lead to prosecution are troubling to the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

"It's something that we're very concerned about," says David R. Rocah, a lawyer for the ACLU. "The point is not that police shouldn't enforce the law. But there's a difference between enforcing the law and making arrests [or issuing citations] that you know or should know can't hold up."

When the charges are quickly dismissed, enforcement of minor offenses can strain community relations, criminologists say.


For example, D. Morton Glover, publisher of an African-American news Web site and host of a radio show, received a citation in March for riding his bicycle in West Baltimore without a headlight.

He says he became irritated that drug dealing was taking place a few blocks away, yet officers were focusing on smaller crimes in neighborhoods where the offenders are likely to be poor and black. He took his complaints to the commissioner during an April meeting.

"People are incensed by just how trivial the charges are," he says. In citation court, the offenses can range from possessing an open container of alcohol to trying to hire a hack, or unlicensed cabdriver.

On a typical day last month, 246 citations issued by officers in the city's Central and Northeastern districts are set for the courtroom of District Judge Catherine Curran O'Malley, the mayor's wife.

As the alleged offenders - nearly all men and nearly all African-American - gather outside a basement courtroom in the Eastside District Court, prosecutors complete their decisions not to pursue most of the cases.

Flawed citations


Many of the public urination and open container citations are flawed because police still cite an old code, prosecutors say. The loitering citations lack adequate evidence, because the law requires proof that loiterers obstructed pedestrian traffic and refused to move. Prosecutors note that the city's law is nearly unenforceable.

So Assistant State's Attorney Patricia Deros dismisses the cases - 182 of the 246 for that day. In 51 of the remaining cases, the defendant accepts the standard offer of five hours of community service over the next two weeks. In three cases, the defendants request trials. One defendant pleads guilty for a $25 fine, and arrest warrants are issued in the nine cases for which defendants failed to appear.

The post-Clark increase in cases requires additional time from prosecutors, making the city's state's attorney sensitive to whether those resources are being used effectively.

"What's the benefit?" Jessamy asks.

Based on a review of most citations, Jessamy's office says prosecutors dismissed 63.5 percent of those issued over the most recent nine months for which statistics are available - through April. And April was the highest dismissal rate yet. In the nine months before Clark arrived, they dismissed 39.7 percent, though there were far fewer cases.

Prosecutors declined to prosecute 32.2 percent of the arrest cases they reviewed over the past nine months for which statistics are available. In the nine months before Clark arrived, they declined to prosecute 27.3 percent. Arrests reviewed by prosecutors tend to be those for crimes committed in the presence of police or those that are quickly solved - typically not such serious offenses as shootings and murders, according to the state's attorney's office.


Numerous national experts and officials from other major cities say Baltimore's numbers cannot be easily compared with elsewhere - but the experts say the data offer a glimpse into the relations between the police and the prosecutors.

"It appears that they're not on the same page," said Jeffrey Ian Ross, a University of Baltimore criminologist.

Jessamy and her top assistants attribute the higher number of dismissals to the increase of quality-of-life crime charges. Police are just learning to write proper citations, they say.

As for arrest cases, many are dismissed because prosecutors decide that by the time the offenders appear in court they have served enough time for minor offenses.

George Gunther, 48, of the city's Upton neighborhood, has been to court seven times in the past four months, all for loitering or trespassing, he says. On this day, he faces charges for sitting on the steps of a vacant building - and, like almost every other time, he leaves court with a quick dismissal.

"When the department gets an initiative, they go full guns," he says. "They're handing these things out like they're candy."