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City policing strategy carries a heavy price


Since his election in 1999, Mayor Martin O'Malley actively has pursued a policy known as "order-maintenance" policing that has been responsible for tens of thousands of unlawful arrests each year in Baltimore, straining the already backlogged court system. Police are ordered to arrest residents for minor "quality-of-life" infractions, commonly making unconstitutional arrests for "loitering" and "failure to obey" a police order. In 2004, 20,974 arrests were made in Baltimore for which no charges were filed, representing over 30 percent of all warrantless arrests.

This strategy is based on the "broken windows" theory, which argues that disorder in a neighborhood leads to serious crime because a broken window signals that crime is tolerated. But studies have failed to find a correlation between disorder and serious crime, other than robbery, when other neighborhood characteristics are considered. And the weight of the evidence suggests that no direct causal relationship exists.

Despite the weakness of the theory, order maintenance is credited with the dramatic reduction in crime in New York City during the 1990s. Indeed, Mr. O'Malley recruited two high-ranking police officials from New York to be commissioners.

New York's reduction in crime, however, followed a national trend of falling crime rates in major cities as the crack cocaine epidemic subsided, and was influenced greatly by the demographic changes caused by gentrification. At the same time, there was a dramatic increase in complaints of police abuse. Research shows that crackdowns targeted poor and minority neighborhoods regardless of crime and disorder rates.

Nonetheless, order maintenance may increase police effectiveness. Arresting and searching more people captures guns and wanted criminals, and the surveillance powers of the police are enhanced by bringing more citizens under scrutiny. In addition, arresting "disorderly" people may allay the fears of some residents.

Defining disorder, however, is left to police officers whose bias and prejudice often play a decisive role in the decision to arrest a subject. Every one of us loiters, but who should be arrested? Should police arrest those they believe have been disrespectful to them? The Supreme Court has declared it unconstitutional to arrest a person for loitering or for being rude to a police officer, but these are common practices in Baltimore.

Thousands of people who have committed no crime spend hours or days in Baltimore's overcrowded Central Booking and Intake Facility, endure physical and psychological trauma and emerge with an arrest record that threatens immediate and future employment and housing. Studies have shown that simply being arrested reduces employment years later and that contact with the criminal justice system explains a significant portion of the disparity in income between whites and blacks.

Research demonstrates that we rate experiences in the criminal justice system more on the impression of procedural fairness than whether the outcome was in our self-interest and that we follow rules based on the legitimacy of the authority rather than the deterrence of sanctions. When police actions seem unfair and capricious, their legitimacy and effectiveness are undermined. This is an especially important consideration for minority neighborhoods, where police legitimacy is low.

The increased costs of order-maintenance policing mean that there is less money for other services. The budget for the Baltimore police in this fiscal year is $318 million, the largest of any agency. It far exceeds the $208 million budget for the school system, and has grown dramatically since 1999 even as the crime rate fell. The cost of arresting, processing and housing those arrested but not charged was at least $5.1 million in 2004 - the same year the city announced there was not enough money for summer school.

It is clear that the costs of this police tactic far outweigh the benefits, but Baltimore still faces a crime problem.

In Boston, order-maintenance policing was quickly abandoned in the early 1990s after an intense public outcry. Police vowed to end quality-of-life arrests and made a serious effort to reach out to critics to craft a new strategy. Officers worked to improve relationships with residents and used community leaders as allies to bolster their effectiveness and legitimacy. Using these relationships, police identify violent offenders and react swiftly when gang violence flares.

There were dramatic declines in crime in both Boston and New York; Boston improved rather than undermined the legitimacy of its police. Baltimore police should reach out to the communities they serve to develop a strategy that is in line with the needs of residents rather continuing New York's failed experiment.

Despite election-year rhetoric, there is no police strategy that will end crime. Poverty, racism, drugs, unemployment and myriad other social problems can be linked to crime rates, and policing is just a small part of this equation.

While Baltimore residents deserve an effective police force, we also deserve one that is fair, just and restrained. When fear of crime takes control, frisking and arresting large numbers of citizens is sometimes seen as the only way to fight back.

In Baltimore, however, growing discontent among residents should serve as a warning to city officials that the police and these tactics have lost legitimacy.

Blake Trettien, a recent graduate of the Johns Hopkins University, won the 2006 Abell Foundation Award in Urban Policy for his paper "Order-Maintenance Policing in Baltimore: The Failure of 'Broken Windows' as a Police Strategy," on which this article is based. His e-mail is

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