Baltimore police are arresting fewer people than they have in years past, according to a recently released report, but almost 1,600 drug arrests in the first eight months of this year could not be prosecuted for lack of evidence.
The decrease in arrests - 7,500 fewer through August compared with the corresponding period last year - provides evidence for what police officials have been saying: that they have stepped away from "zero-tolerance" policing.
Jailing people for minor offenses that didn't result in criminal charges clogged the city jail and led to criticism and lawsuits. The American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People sued the Police Department and the city for what it called "illegal arrests."
In 2005, the arrest total topped 100,000, about one-sixth of the city's 640,000 population.
Last year, about 67,000 people were arrested by officers who saw or suspected criminal activity. Through August, 38,460 were arrested, down from 45,947 in the corresponding period last year.
In an interview published this week in The Sun, Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III called the volume of arrests in previous years "mind-boggling."
"Did we really accomplish a lot doing that?" he said. Instead of filling the city's Central Booking and Intake Center "with a whole bunch of arrests for arrests' sake, ... we're going to be much more focused."
More so than the previous three police chiefs, Bealefeld has disavowed zero-tolerance policing.
That style included strategies such as "stop and frisk," popular under Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm, and the "broken windows" or quality-of-life-crimes crackdown, popular under Commissioners Edward T. Norris and Kevin P. Clark.
Such practices, which led to mass arrests, were criticized by the ACLU and NAACP, and fostered poor relations between police and some communities.
But they also might have led to some steep crime declines. In 2002, with Norris at the helm, the city saw a low of 253 homicides, still far short of the goal then-Mayor Martin O'Malley set of dipping to 175.
Norris said yesterday that he used the stop-and-frisk technique to target specific crime outbreaks in designated areas, not to cast a wide net over the citizenry. He said that after he left the department in December 2002, successors broadened the strategy's scope, leading to thousands of unnecessary arrests.
"You can't just start locking everybody up like they did in later years," Norris said.
The statistics released this week by the city state's attorney's office detail the first eight months of this year. In addition to fewer arrests, more of those arrests are leading to criminal charges.
This year, about one-fifth of arrests failed to become criminal cases, because the infraction was so minor that it was "abated by arrest" or because prosecutors did not believe the case would stand up in court.
During the first eight months last year, about one-quarter of the arrests fizzled. In years past, that figure has topped one-third.
David Rocah, an ACLU Maryland staff attorney, said this year's arrest numbers show that the department has "moved slightly in the right direction, but not enough for anyone to say the problem has been solved."
He said the ACLU/NAACP lawsuit that is working its way through federal court continues to collect new plaintiffs, including people who have been arrested for loitering while handing out literature or arrested for littering after dropping a sauce packet.
"The fact that this continues to happen is a reflection that there are still some significant problems in the department that haven't been addressed," he said.
Of particular note, according to Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the state's attorney's office, is the quantity and quality of drug arrests.
"Many of the drug cases are just too frivolous," Burns said. "It's not wise to use police and prosecution resources on the street-level sellers and buyers. What we really need to do is move up into the drug organizations, to the sources of the drugs and violence."
Burns said Antonio Gioia, chief prosecutor of the felony drug unit, has worked closely with the Police Department to develop new approaches to checking drug crime.
The number of drug arrests that prosecutors deemed insufficient for criminal charges dropped from 2,500 last year to 1,600 this year, comparing the first eight months of each year.
Police data current through the end of last week also show a decrease in this year's drug arrests and "released without charges" arrests, the bulk of which involve drugs.
Burns said police are busting fewer in hand-to-hand drug deals, cases that - if they made it to court - were often rejected by jurors distrustful of the police.
Still, "officers can't simply ignore a hand-to-hand if they see it," said Sterling Clifford, a police spokesman.
Fewer of these arrests occur now, he said, "because the focus of patrol officers has changed."
"A drug arrest is still important, but the change is where we value it, versus a handgun arrest or a volume of narcotics that shows the person is a major player," he added
This year, the city has recorded 262 homicides, a 10 percent increase from last year. But police statistics also show a 10 percent overall drop in violent crime.
Bealefeld has been commissioner since July, when Mayor Sheila Dixon asked Hamm to resign.
Clifford said Bealefeld favors attacking the biggest problems in each individual neighborhood, with a specific focus on repeat violent offenders.
"The problems in the neighborhoods have changed, so we have changed," Clifford said. "No police department in the country does the same thing year after year."