Police step up frisking tactic

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In a push to seize guns and deter crime in the city's most dangerous neighborhoods, Baltimore police are aggressively stopping and frisking people, a tactic employed with little oversight from senior commanders and virtually no tracking of its effectiveness, a Sun review has found.

Department officials credit the strategy with helping to reduce homicides and violent crime in areas where people often ask for more police. But residents being targeted say they are unjustly harassed and detained. Defense lawyers and legal experts say they worry that the approach runs afoul of constitutional protections against illegal search and seizures.

Police officers are constitutionally prohibited from conducting random stops and searches, but courts have ruled that officers could stop a person if they had "reasonable suspicion" that someone had a weapon or was in the midst of committing or preparing to commit a crime.

Patrol officers - whose productivity is measured in large part by how many stops and arrests they make - have told their union representatives that what could be an effective tool for reducing crime is being overused in a daily push to ratchet up statistics.

Some call stop-and-frisks a "VCR detail" - for violation of civil rights, according to Lt. Frederick V. Roussey, the president of the police union.

'No apologies'

Police officials backed the strategy as one of many tools used to combat crime but said they are working to improve the way they monitor and account for the stops.

"We make no apologies for being an aggressive Police Department; that's why we have reduced crime this year," said department spokesman Matt Jablow. "But we're also committed to respecting people's civil rights and upholding the law."

Officers report performing tens of thousands of such stops this year, according to internal documents reviewed by The Sun. Their commanders put the figure far lower but concede that the department does not have an accurate count because of inadequate record keeping, despite a law requiring local agencies to report every such stop to the state police.

After questions from The Sun, the department launched an audit to determine the actual number of stop-and-frisks by officers.

Stephen Kearney, a spokesman for Mayor Martin O'Malley, deferred substantive questions on use of the tactic to the police, but said the department "should complete all of its required paperwork."

A stop-and-frisk involves an officer's detaining a citizen involuntarily on the street and patting down the clothes, such as pants or jacket, in a search for weapons. The tactic is aimed mostly at loiterers or people who officers believe are involved, even if not at that moment, in something illegal.

Police also are required to fill out citizen contact receipts for each frisk, giving one copy to the person searched and keeping another for department records. But the form is flawed because it doesn't require the signature of a supervisor, as mandated by the department's general orders.

William Elliott Jr., 40, is a frequent target, and he complains that he is often stopped without cause. Though he has a lengthy arrest record charging him with drug possession, he and legal experts say that alone is not justification for a random stop.

"They think everybody is a drug dealer," he said as he walked through the Park Heights neighborhood. He said he has been stopped and frisked so many times that he has lost count.

Elliott said an officer recently stopped and searched him while he was walking one of his children to a school bus stop.

Police record on the citizen contact receipts the races of people they stop and frisk. But because of flawed record keeping, city police were unable to provide a detailed racial breakdown of stop-and-frisk statistics. A preliminary analysis of 1,804 stop-and-frisks shows that officers used the tactic on about six blacks for every white person in a city where the population ratio is roughly two to one, according to an internal police report.

The practice is being applied mostly in neighborhoods besieged by crime, and where a high concentration of minorities live, records and interviews show.

Deputy Police Commissioner Marcus Brown said officers are told to use the tactic to disrupt drug corners, seize guns and prevent violence. The number of homicides this year is below last year's, and violent and property crimes also are down, statistics show. Brown said officers are expected to be "more proactive in the areas where we're having crime problems."

Stop-and-frisk strategies have been employed by police departments in Baltimore and elsewhere for years, and the policy was refined by the New York Police Department, where officials say the tactic helped to drastically reduce crime. It was part of a "zero tolerance" policy put in place in the 1990s by two top New York commanders who later would become police commissioners in Baltimore - Edward T. Norris and Kevin P. Clark.

Police commanders argue that the in-your-face tactic reduces crime by scaring criminals into thinking they could be searched at any moment.

According to internal documents, police commanders in Baltimore's nine districts have compiled figures showing officers have conducted more than 130,000 stop-and-frisks through the first nine months of this year. That would translate to about 480 frisks a day in a city of about 641,000 people.

In Philadelphia, a city more than double Baltimore's size, police encounters with citizens totaled 52,843 through July, according to that city's department. Those numbers include stop-and-frisks, field interviews and other investigative incidents.

In Chicago, with a population of 2.7 million, officers recorded 184,101 contacts with citizens through July, a number that also includes stop-and-frisks and other encounters.

Unverified figure

Baltimore police officials say that the 130,000 number is unverified and vastly overstated, a compilation of different kinds of enforcement efforts that is self-reported by district commanders and perhaps even overblown by officers trying to exaggerate their job performance.

The 130,000 included searches in which officers received consent from a person; searches of persons placed under arrest; and possible multiple reporting of the same stop-and-frisk incident by different officers involved in an encounter with a citizen, Jablow said. "One-hundred-and-thirty-thousand [stop-and-frisks] have not been done," he said. "Absolutely not."

Jablow pointed out that complaints from citizens about excessive force and discourteous behavior by police have declined over the past two years.

When questioned by The Sun about the number, the department offered a far lower figure, 1,804. But that, too, appears inaccurate. A subsequent police audit shows that in the Southeastern District alone, officers have made at least 3,800 such stops. The citywide review is continuing.

As of late September, city police had submitted 11 stop-and-frisk reports for the previous 12 months, according to Maryland State Police records. Maryland's law requires police to write a detailed report for each incident, even in cases when a gun is not found, but there is no specific deadline for filing the reports with the state police.

"We're now in the process of having our reporting methods match up with what we report to the state police," Jablow said. "Commissioner [Leonard D.] Hamm is committed to providing the state police with the most accurate numbers possible."

In the case of the Southeastern District audit, the 3,800 number represents a significant revision from the 17,000 figure initially listed by the district's officers.

Those initial, unaudited numbers show that one Southeastern District officer had reported stopping and frisking people 481 times over a five-month period this year. The number of guns the officer seized: zero. Forty-five guns were reported seized in a district that includes the neighborhoods of Canton, Highlandtown and areas north and east of Patterson Park during that same period, internal records show.

Because the Police Department hasn't kept up-to-date records, it could not determine how many involuntary stops lead to weapons being confiscated, nor can it determine whether officers have legal justification for their stops.

Improper or incomplete documentation also undermines the ability of detectives to pull names of people who hang on certain streets from databases used to record officers' contacts with people - potentially useful information for homicide investigations. That was one of the reasons given for requiring officers to log each stop when the department stepped up its use of stop-and-frisks in 2001.

Interviews with more than a dozen men throughout Baltimore who said they had been searched found that most had not been given receipts of their encounters. Many said they did not know that they had a right to ask for the paperwork, while those who did get receipts admitted to throwing them away.

Blandon Nawann James works at a hair salon on North Avenue and does not have a criminal record.

James said he has been stopped and searched three times by police this year but issued a contact receipt only once. On that receipt, the officer failed to report the reason for the July stop.

"If it's used properly and intelligently and legally, it could be a good tool," said Eugene O'Donnell, professor of law and police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "But if it's used recklessly, in a blanket kind of way, it can really have repercussions in the community.

"My sense is the public has an ingrained schizophrenia about policing," O'Donnell added. "They do want police to be proactive, but they recognize they may skirt the rules."

Landmark ruling

A landmark 1968 Supreme Court decision - Terry v. Ohio - essentially created a standard by which law enforcement officers could stop a person if they had "reasonable suspicion" that the person was carrying a weapon or was in the middle of committing or preparing to commit a crime.

Before that decision, officers needed to be able to show they had "probable cause" - a much higher threshold to stop, detain, question and search a person.

In the years since the court's decision, several states across the country, including Maryland in 1972, passed laws that tried to codify the practice and give guidelines to police departments on how to perform such so-called "Terry stops." More than 30 years ago in Baltimore, the lessening of the legal justification for stop-and-frisks was hotly debated by city leaders and critics, who feared police would use the tactic aggressively against blacks in low-income, high-crime neighborhoods.

"The court thought that 'Terry stops' would be a narrow and modest exercise of police authority," said Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University and a criminal defense attorney. "It has now become an almost automatic act by police encountering citizens in some neighborhoods."

In New York, the stop-and-frisk policy has been credited by police with reducing crime and criticized by the state's attorney general as being abusive.

"What doesn't get spoken about ... is the use of very aggressive street interactions at a very low constitutional threshold in order to get guns off the streets," said Jeffrey Fagan, a Columbia University professor who led a study for New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer in 1999.

The study concluded that roughly one out of seven stops failed to meet the legal threshold, based on the information that officers reported.

'All about numbers'

Baltimore's commissioner, Hamm, and his top commanders have continued pushing the stop-and-frisk strategy and have demanded that officers do more to disrupt drug dealing in high-crime areas.

City police union officials say they are getting complaints from officers on the street who are facing daily pressure from supervisors to prove that they are being productive. The union officials say they are concerned that the push for numbers could lead to even more problems with stop-and-frisk.

"We get calls all the time from [officers] saying 'I just can't keep this pace up. ... People are tired of me pulling up and harassing them,'" said Roussey, the police union president. "It's all about numbers, and it doesn't matter how you get them."

Prosecutors, who decide which cases from police to pursue, say that even when officers have seized guns or weapons from such stops, their office has thrown some cases out because the stop was not legally justified.

Natalie Finegar, the chief attorney at Central Booking for the Office of the Public Defender, said her clients have been reporting an increasing trend of being harassed by police.

"We're hearing a consistent story from our clients, of what their experience was like," Finegar said. "They will tell you that 'that officer searches me every week,' that they're out there doing it on a regular basis. It is an everyday occurrence to them, and people are not shocked by it."

gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

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