Under DOJ scrutiny, Baltimore police practice of 'clearing corners' draws ire and praise

Officers banter with a group of young men on Harmison Street in West Baltimore.
Officers banter with a group of young men on Harmison Street in West Baltimore. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun)

To escape the stifling heat in his apartment this week, Penn North resident Shawn Williams sat outside with his small Bluetooth speaker, listening to slain hometown rapper Lor Scoota riff on urban life in Baltimore.

Like so many times before — more than 50, by his estimate — a Baltimore police officer told him to move along.


At City Hall, just two hours earlier, Justice Department officials had criticized Baltimore police for indiscriminate enforcement of low-level crimes such as loitering, failure to obey and trespassing.

In a blistering, 163-page report, federal officials documented years of unconstitutional and discriminatory policing in the city, including "clearing corners" without legal justification.


These interactions have become part of Baltimore life. Tens of thousands of pedestrians are stopped each year by police, particularly in poor, black neighborhoods, and a small fraction are arrested or given a citation.

As drug dealers vie for territory, so do residents and businesses, posting "No loitering" or "No trespassing" signs in their windows. And some officers continue to believe that these tactics can prevent crime before it happens.

Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, the city's top cop, said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun that the department's focus on clearing corners based on vague misdemeanor statutes has often been misguided, damaging fragile police-community relations in the city.

It "really ticked off communities and families and folks who had to watch people being arrested in front of their own homes for loitering and for trespassing and for failure to obey an order," Davis said.


He described a typical interaction, with an officer saying, "Get off this corner," and the resident responding: "I live on this corner."

"And all the sudden, you're under arrest," Davis said.

The American Civil Liberties Union successfully sued the Baltimore Police Department years ago over such "zero-tolerance" tactics, and city officials have disavowed them. But the tactics have endured on city streets, according to the Justice Department, as police supervisors emphasized keeping arrest numbers high.

Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department's civil rights division, which compiled the report, said Baltimore police had embarked on "a quest to produce large numbers of enforcement actions — pedestrian stops in particular — often without enough consideration of their limited impact on solving crime and their caustic damage to community relationships."

On Wednesday, Williams, 23, avoided arrest. He got up and gathered his belongings rather than add another loitering citation to the stack he's received before.

"They don't got nothing else to do but mess with people who are doing nothing," he said with resignation in his voice.

The law defines loitering as standing around, gathering in a crowd or parking a car in a public space. Such actions become illegal if you interfere with the "free passage" of another pedestrian or car, or if you harass, curse or threaten another member of the public.

It is also illegal if an officer determines "there is a reasonable likelihood a breach of the peace or disorderly conduct shall result."

Officers can arrest someone for loitering or trespassing if they first warn the person that he or she is in violation of the law and that person fails to follow police orders.

But the Justice Department found that Baltimore police often did not follow the law in applying it.

The department found that police often failed to warn people or cited the loitering statute to move people out of areas for no reason.

In one incident detailed in the report, police told an African-American man and his 4-year-old son, who were sitting on a fence near a park where the boy had been playing, that they "couldn't just stand around" and "needed to move."

In another, an officer tried to clear a group of people outside a late-night restaurant, worried that his supervisor would be angry if he saw that the area had not been cleared. The officer ended up in a physical altercation with a man who refused to leave.

"Alone and surrounded by an unfriendly crowd, the officer fired his service weapon at a man he feared was about to kick him," the report said. "The bullet struck two people, at least one of whom was not involved in the incident."

The Justice Department reached an agreement in principle with the city, acknowledging that reforms are needed. A more formal, court-enforced consent decree is expected by November, which would mandate specific reforms and hold the Police Department accountable if it fails to comply.

Still, it remains to be seen how enforcement against minor offenses will change.

Some legal experts say it is a crucial tool for officers engaged in the broader fight against violence, providing them the discretion to prevent drug dealing, shootings and other, more serious crimes.

Lawrence Rosenthal, a law professor at Chapman University who defended a loitering law aimed at cracking down on gangs in Chicago before the U.S. Supreme Court in the late 1990s, said such laws are an important tool and help to put criminals on notice that police are ready to confront them.

He also said the laws can be overly broad; he lost the Chicago case.

"If you are targeting your resources at hot spots, sending the message that it's not smart to carry guns and drugs around these hot spots, you can drive down crime," he said. "If potential offenders see that the police are in disrepute, that they're being encouraged to pull back, potential offenders may conclude that their risk of apprehension is going down and it emboldens them."

Baltimore's local police union contends that officers are forced to rely on arrests for minor offenses to meet quotas.

After the Justice Department released its report, Lt. Gene Ryan, the union president, called for the immediate elimination of the city's data-driven crime-reporting program, saying it puts pressure on officers to "produce meaningless and ineffective" stop-and-arrest statistics.

At one point, a flier apparently celebrating loitering arrests was posted in several Baltimore police districts, according to the Justice Department. It depicted three officers leading a handcuffed man wearing a hoodie along a city sidewalk toward a police transport van, with the text: "Striking fear into loiters," with "loiterers" misspelled. Some former and current officers said the flier was an inside joke between units.

Baltimore police recorded more than 300,000 pedestrian stops from January 2010 to May 2015, though the number is likely much higher because such stops are under-reported, according to the report. The stops were concentrated in predominantly black neighborhoods and "often lack reasonable suspicion," the report said.

Baltimore police "approach individuals standing lawfully on sidewalks in front of public housing complexes or private businesses and arrest them unless the individuals are able to 'justify' their presence to the officers' satisfaction," the report said.

One black man in his mid-50s was stopped 30 times in less than four years, according to the report. Officers cited "loitering" or "trespassing" as the reason for many of the stops, and in at least half of the incidents detained the man while they checked for outstanding warrants. None of the stops resulted in a citation or criminal charge.


Civil rights advocates and community members decry the practice as thinly veiled harassment and intimidation.


Harvey Grossman, an attorney with the ACLU of Illinois who argued against Rosenthal before the Supreme Court, said such tactics — often called "quality of life" or "broken windows" policing — are "really a plague on the black and brown communities, not a boon to their safety."

But that might be changing, he said, as "community policing" has become the buzzword in law enforcement.

"All of this was predictable. You can't police a community like that and prey on people and not have it come back and bite you," Grossman said. "They broke a social contract with black and brown communities when they started treating them like occupied turf."

Still, some residents and business owners say they want police to clear corners, to prevent drug dealing or violence on their doorsteps.

Sophia McMurray, 54, nodded toward two grandchildren when asked about the "No loitering" sign posted in the window of her Druid Heights home on a recent afternoon. She has eight grandchildren who often visit her home, where she has lived for more than 10 years.

"I like my grandkids to be in a safe environment," she said.

"If I come home from work, ain't nobody supposed to be sitting on my steps," she said. "I don't even sit on my steps."

June Crisp, 53, has owned Copy Concepts on West North Avenue since 2000. Last year, after rioting in the area following the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who suffered a spinal injury in police custody, Crisp said loitering outside got so bad that he called City Councilman Nick Mosby to get an official "No loitering; Violators will be prosecuted" sign posted on the printing shop's brick facade.

Crisp also painted the steps leading to the front door, declaring: "No loitering. No sitting on steps. Violators will be arrested."

"After the riots, it got bad, like the drug dealers were having conventions on this block," he said. "All this drug activity, it scares people away. Legitimate people, honest people."

He said he asks people hanging out in front of his shop to leave, then calls police if they remain.

"You've got to do what you've got to do," he said. "I'm trying to make money. I'm trying to pay my bills."

Baltimore police began to enforce misdemeanor laws for loitering and trespassing in earnest in the late 1990s, as the department implemented a zero-tolerance enforcement model.

The ACLU of Maryland sued the Police Department in 2006, arguing that a huge increase in arrests, largely for minor misdemeanor offenses, could not be justified. In 2010, the organization agreed to settle with the city, which agreed to better train officers and implement reforms.

In the years that followed, the number of arrests dropped precipitously.

But, as the Justice Department noted, the stops continued.

"Think about how many folks in poor communities don't have air conditioning. Where are you going to go when it's 90 degrees out? You're not going to sit in your stiflingly hot apartment if you have a choice in the matter," said David Rocah, an attorney with the ACLU of Maryland. "They're stopping people without any level of reasonable suspicion."

Baltimore police enacted a new policy in 2015, urging officers to make verbal warnings rather than issuing citations or making arrests for minor, "quality of life" offenses.

But according to the Justice Department, "the legacy of the zero tolerance era continues to influence officer activity and contribute to constitutional violations."

Bernard Harcourt, a professor of law and political science at Columbia University and author of the book "Illusion of Order: The False Promise of Broken Windows Policing," said there is "a long, storied history of using these kinds of loitering, vagrancy, minor misconduct ordinances precisely in order to control African-American and poor communities."

Now, he said, there is a "growing chorus of governmental reports showing the racially skewed nature of these policing practices."

But to effect change, he said, police need to be on board.

"You can have all kinds of consent decrees put in place, but if you don't do the training and you don't do the explaining," he said, "they're not going to change the culture nor the effect."

Baltimore Sun reporters Justin Fenton and Erica Green contributed to this article.

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