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Groups applaud police reforms, hope for reduction in unjustified arrests

At age 18, Tavis Crockett had never had any trouble with the law, but in the summer of 2006, he found himself arrested and detained for hours at Central Booking — twice — within the span of a month.

His offenses: sitting on his aunt's front steps and dropping a candy wrapper in the street.

Officials with the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People say Crockett and thousands of other Baltimoreans were rounded up because of zero-tolerance policies that put a big emphasis on arrests but little on justifying them.

An $870,000 settlement approved Wednesday by the Board of Estimates will require the city to retrain officers, mandate that supervisors review "quality of life" arrests and allow an independent auditor to evaluate data and submit semiannual reports.

In a joint statement with the plaintiffs, the Police Department said it "had agreed to reject the zero-tolerance policies" and establish new ways to handle low-level infractions. Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said the reforms were "certainly in line with my overall mission for this Police Department."

"Each of these [reforms] is aimed at addressing what we thought were the structural reasons why improper arrests had bloomed in Baltimore," said David Rocah, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Maryland. "This was a case of toxic neglect. It just didn't matter enough to [officials] that this was happening."

The lawsuit, filed in 2006, chiefly covered arrests and policies the plaintiffs contended were enacted and encouraged by then-Mayor Martin O'Malley. But O'Malley, now governor, maintained Wednesday that there was "never, ever a policy that asked police officers to go beyond the Constitution or to engage in illegal arrests."

Asked whether the settlement was a rebuke of his policies as mayor, he said: "I don't see this as any rebuke. I do see it as a settlement where the city solicitor's office decided on a cost-benefit analysis to settle these 14 cases rather than go to trial with them."

Rocah said O'Malley's comment ignored the policy changes agreed to in the settlement, in addition to the city's general shift away from those policies in recent years. "Those kinds of reforms are simply not part of nuisance settlements," Rocah said.

Arrests reached 108,000 — one for every six people in the city — in 2005, but have dropped by more than 30,000 since then- Mayor Sheila Dixon and Bealefeld focused on a "targeted enforcement" strategy to combat the city's stubborn homicide rate. Arrests continue a downward trend this year, falling 7 percent, and fewer people are being released without charges.

Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, present of the NAACP's Baltimore branch, said he does not believe the problem of unjustified arrests has been eliminated, but he and Rocah said they applauded the efforts of current police leaders to address the issue, including signing off on the reforms.

"We've come a long way," Cheatham said.

The lawsuit is the second brought in recent years that has been settled and will result in outside monitors keeping close tabs on police affairs. A multimillion-dollar settlement in a lawsuit that alleged widespread race discrimination in internal disciplinary procedures calls for an outside consultant to monitor and compile confidential reports on discipline. That consultant recently began work, while the auditor who will review arrests should be picked within the next 60 to 70 days.

The $870,000 settlement includes $240,000 to pay the auditor's salary.

In many other cities, independent monitors have been in place for years because of allegations of misconduct or as a result of lawsuits. The Detroit Police Department has been under a consent decree for the past decade that requires a federal monitor to oversee reforms.

Dozens of other cities have created a city position for such oversight. Denver hired a police monitor five years ago in response to allegations of police misconduct; Austin, Texas, did so in 2002. New Orleans created one in 2008.

Baltimore has a civilian review board, created in 2000 by O'Malley, to review complaints against officers, but members are volunteers appointed by the mayor, and their reports of cases lack detail. The panel was given subpoena power in exchange for limiting its influence to that of an advisory role.

At an evening news conference at its headquarters called to help residents expunge their criminal records, the NAACP called on Bealefeld to create a commission to review police policies, procedures, rules, regulations and guidelines related to officers carrying weapons while off duty.

In addition to the auditor, Rocah said Wednesday's settlement calls for several other changes:

--Police will issue policies and directives laying out the elements of "quality of life" crimes and requiring officers to use lower-level methods of resolving them, such as issuing warnings or citations.

--Training to "ensure officers know the limits of their authority," particularly in terms of free speech or demonstrations.

--Improved data collection to not just count arrests, but to analyze them. Supervisors will review all probable-cause statements for quality-of-life arrests and whether the officer has explained why he or she did not choose a different approach. He said there will be "trigger points" to look at "whose behavior is out of the norm for other comparable officers." The reviews will be considered in officers' job performance reviews.

Robert F. Cherry, the city police union president, said the reforms were not discussed with the union. But he said officers did their job and continue to work hard to reduce crime. "Those that continue to doubt the resolve and commitment to duty exemplified by the hard work performed by the men and women in blue should be ashamed to say otherwise."

After becoming mayor in 1999, O'Malley ordered police officers to arrest or question anyone standing on the city's drug corners for offenses as trivial as littering, as part of a zero-tolerance, New York-style police strategy.

Violent crime plummeted in the first few years, and police commanders argued that the aggressive tactics reduced crime by scaring criminals into thinking they could be searched at any moment. Young people reported being harassed for no reason, while some older residents applauded the effort to clean up the city's corners. The mayor's office stressed that residents wanted them to "do more, not less."

But killings began to creep up, and arrests reached a peak in 2005. Prosecutors dismissed about one-quarter of the cases for various reasons, some for the sake of trying to keep courtrooms unclogged, and others for insurmountable flaws in police work that made the cases impossible to prosecute.

At a raucous public hearing at the War Memorial Auditorium in 2006, State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy held up a police charging document in which five people were arrested without sufficient cause and said her office had a responsibility to ensure that the city "doesn't trample on the Constitution."

The ACLU took up the cause in 2006, filing a lawsuit whose plaintiffs included a 19-year-old Morgan State University engineering student, a Parkville elementary school teacher, a doctoral candidate in neurobiology from Texas and two Pennsylvania residents visiting Baltimore for a bachelor's party.

Tyrone Braxton, now 25, appeared at Wednesday's news conference. He was arrested on April 15, 2005, while standing on a sidewalk. Officers asked whether he and his friend, Evan Howard, had any information about a recent homicide, then arrested them for loitering and impeding the flow of traffic, even though they had not been ordered to disperse. Rocah said that indicated a clear lack of understanding of the law by the officers.

Braxton was detained for more than 36 hours in cramped conditions in Central Booking. Howard was held for 54 hours and walked back home to West Baltimore after he was released.

"I understand they have to a job to do, but I prefer it to be the right way — the legal way," said Braxton, who earned an associate's degree and hopes to go back to school for fire science. He said he has not been arrested since.

"It was a horrible experience, and I hope it wouldn't happen again," Braxton said.

Crockett, who was arrested twice in 2006, works at Target and hasn't been arrested since. "I just try my best to avoid police and stay on the straight path," Crockett said.

Erin Marcus, 27, of Mount Vernon often protests as part of the Baltimore Animal Rights Coalition. Before an October 2007 protest over a restaurant offering foie gras, organizers printed a copy of the city code pertaining to demonstrations and leafleting. When officers threatened the protestors with arrest, they produced a copy of the code and read it aloud but were detained anyway. Marcus said she has been arrested four more times since then.

O'Malley seemed to brush off the lawsuit Wednesday. "There are and always will be in major cities suits filed for unlawful arrests. Those suits sometimes go to court and are sometimes settled. … One of the toughest things to do in any city is maintain public safety."

He said he never wanted officers to engage in illegal arrests and in many instances sought to "retrain and correct those incidences where there would have been or there was overzealousness."

He added that at time there was "pretty severe discipline" for officers who overreached.

Rocah said the plaintiffs never contended that there was an official policy encouraging illegal arrests but that they occurred nevertheless and were not addressed by O'Malley and police officials once they became an issue.

"That's still a 'policy' of violating the Constitution," Rocah said.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

twitter.com/justin_fenton

Baltimore Sun reporter Annie Linskey contributed to this article.


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