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Restrictions on Baltimore police, prosecutors allow criminal ‘underworld’ to flourish | COMMENTARY

Baltimore police are investigating the fatal shooting of an unidentified man in an alley located in the Carrollton Ridge neighborhood, police said.
Baltimore police are investigating the fatal shooting of an unidentified man in an alley located in the Carrollton Ridge neighborhood, police said. (Phillip Jackson)

The Sun has recently reported the quarterly self-congratulatory ceremony before Judge James Bredar in which the sponsors of and financial and reputational beneficiaries of the Baltimore police consent decree celebrate its alleged achievements. The newspaper also reported on Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s interview boasting about her policy of nonenforcement of the drug laws. These two narratives would lead one to think that Baltimore in every way is getting better and better. Yet the city is on track to again have more than 300 homicides at year’s end.

I do not impugn the sincerity and good intentions of either Judge Bredar or State’s Attorney Mosby. Their causes and actions have large constituencies. Thousands of honest Black Baltimore residents have reason to resent “stop and frisk” policing or being pulled over for “driving while Black.” Thousands of somewhat more culpable Black residents and their innocent relatives have reason to resent the past excesses of the drug war — including time spent in pretrial detention for failure to make bail for minor offenses and extraordinarily long sentences for other drug offenses.

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But after six years of communal self-flagellation following the 2015 Freddie Gray affair — with its false “rough ride” narrative repudiated in repeated judicial and administrative proceedings and federal and state investigations — it is time to take stock of where Judge Bredar and State’s Attorney Mosby have gotten us.

The decree not only limits excesses of stop and frisk policing, but it effectively suspends in Baltimore City the operation of large swaths of the Maryland criminal code, even provisions relating to such matters as public defecation. Its effect, together with the stated policies of State’s Attorney Mosby, has been to bring an end to proactive policing in Baltimore City. It is not an exaggeration to say that the authors of the decree systematically undertook to nullify and prevent the use in Baltimore of the practices and techniques which under the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations produced a nearly 80% reduction in the homicide rate in New York City.

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The purpose of stop and frisk policing was to keep weapons off the streets. For this reason, it has recently been reintroduced with some success in London, which has much milder problems than Baltimore. The effect of sweeping restrictions on it, and on enforcement of loitering and other minor “broken windows” offenses, has been to cede city street corners to drug dealers and to facilitate revenge killings.

Ms. Mosby is perfectly right to favor decriminalization of drugs. But she cannot do this unilaterally. So long as federal criminal prohibitions remain in place, whatever the extent of their enforcement, all contracts in a very large industry are enforceable only at the point of a gun.

At both state and national levels, those who have fostered restrictions on the police and prosecutors have been very slow to produce measures to substitute a controlled legal industry for an illegal one. Maryland legislators have been remarkably laggard in legalizing both medical marijuana and recreational marijuana. Too many have been more interested in the racial identity of present and future dealers than in defunding the underworld. The same is true at the national level. Even on the issue of ending a constitutionally questionable federal role in marijuana prohibition, President Joe Biden can be fairly said to have waffled, wobbled, wavered and wimped.

The contrast with the way in which President Roosevelt and Maryland Gov. Albert Ritchie dealt with alcohol prohibition is a dramatic one. Repeal in 1933 was carried through against the advice of all sorts of “experts,” including all but one of the members of the federal Wickersham study commission. It assuredly did not end alcohol abuse and its consequences. But it dramatically reduced political corruption, gangsterism and the growth of police power. Despite depression and war, there were fewer federal law enforcers in 1952 than in 1932.

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Nor have the’ supporters of the BLM movement been energetic in promoting to at-risk city youth legal employment in place of that offered by the underworld. President Biden proposes vast expenditures on preschool education and publicly provided care for the elderly, causes beloved of the public employee unions. Work relief for the young is the subject only of a very modest proposal, encumbered with all sorts of ideological baggage.

Judge Bredar and State’s Attorney Mosby must recognize and work within these constraints. What they have done instead is given gifts to a powerful existing underworld and further demoralized both law-abiding residents of Baltimore and the Baltimore business community.

What was done in New York by former Police Commissioner William Bratton and his successors is undoubtedly a “second best” policy. But the excesses of the New York policy can be limited without chartering the present regime of lawlessness. Baltimore appears to have a police commissioner that Black residents can trust. He should not be straight-jacketed by the extraordinary restrictions in the consent decree, which as Judge Bredar has belatedly recognized has also fostered police retirements and discouraged recruiting. It is long since past time for Judge Bredar or Mayor Scott and the Biden administration to seek open-ended hearings upon and reconsideration of at least the more intrusive provisions of the decree.

George Liebmann (george.liebmann2@verizon.net) is president of the Library Company of the Baltimore Bar and the author of several works on law and history, most recently “Vox Clamantis In Deserto: An Iconoclast Looks At Four Failed Administrations.”

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