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Don't get personal about public policy issues


Aword of advice to the folks at the Baltimore Police Department: Let's not get personal, people.

That's just what Deputy Commissioner Marcus Brown did in a letter to City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. Brown's letter, dated June 5, 2006. It was in response to one Harris sent Brown on May 30. In his letter, Harris told Brown he had received a number of complaints from both cops and civilians about the department's arrest policies.

"It has been brought to my attention that officers are being forced to make quota arrests," Harris wrote, "and are being penalized if arrest stats are not high. In addition, numerous members of the Baltimore City Police Department continue to call me and complain that they are being forced to increase arrests versus focusing on the quality of arrests."

Later in his letter, Harris asked Brown to address, specifically, four questions.

"What is the standard for arresting someone for spitting, having an open container, loitering or trespassing, to name a few? What is the standard for a citizen to be stopped and frisked? What is the complaint process for citizens as it relates to believing they are arrested illegally, and how do you handle complaints and respond?"

Harris got his answer Monday but not, he alleges, before at least two members of the news media did. According to Harris, reporters from both WJZ and WMAR television asked him about Brown's letter before it was hand-delivered to his office.

Matt Jablow, a spokesman for the department, disputed Harris' claim.

"Although we found out about Councilman Harris' letter to Deputy Brown through reporters, that's not how we handle our responses. We hand-delivered the letter to Councilman Harris' office and gave it to the media when they asked what our response to Councilman Harris' letter was."

If you think Brown answered any of the specific questions Harris raised, you've been living in an alternate Baltimore since Mayor Martin O'Malley started naming police commissioners. Brown's letter talks about the City Council public safety subcommittee that determined there was no arrest quota system in the Police Department. Then he talked about "quality of life" issues in Harris' district.

"We have approximately 500,000 calls every year from people asking us to assist them with crimes like public urination, loitering, and open containers," Brown wrote. "These issues are often not resolved most effectively with a citation. Instead, an arrest is often required to get people who are urinating in other people's yards, or drinking on their steps, to stop."

OK, fine and dandy so far. There are folks who might disagree with Brown's assessment of the situation, but not the manner in which, to that point, he had responded.

But then Brown got personal.

"I am quite sure that is what you would expect if it ever happened at your house," Brown wrote.

Excuse me?

Why make this a personal issue of what cops would do if they found someone taking a leak on Harris' lawn, or drinking a 40-ounce while loitering on his front porch? Harris never got personal in his letter. He simply addressed matters of policy.

"My job is to ask questions and get answers," Harris said. "The day I stop asking questions for citizens who are calling me, that's the day I step down."

This matter is about policies, not personalities. And Harris isn't the only one questioning those policies, or the only one disgruntled beat cops are calling.

Paul Blair Jr., the president of the Baltimore chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, said he gets two to three calls a day from officers who complain that the message they're getting from superiors is to arrest first.

"Let's say someone is drinking on the street," Blair said. "The officer has several options. He can have the offender pour it out and let him continue on his way. If the person has identification, the officer can write a civil citation, which means he would have to pay a fine. Or the officer could write a criminal citation, which means the offender would have to go to court. Or the officer could arrest him."

Blair said officers are complaining that their superiors - the commissioner and deputy commissioners who, from the comfort of their desks, figure they know better how to handle problems of public urination, loitering and open containers than cops on the beat - are taking away their discretion.

"I'm getting the calls that the message is we go straight to the last step," Blair said. That last step is arrest.

Harris is basically asking why the last step is now the first one. It'd be nice if he could get an answer.

And it'd be even nicer if the folks answering him didn't get personal about it.

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