Baltimore grand jury decries 'arrests without merit'
JULIE BYKOWICZ, SUN REPORTER
Copyright 2006 The Baltimore Sun Company
A Baltimore grand jury is calling for the number of city arrests that fail to result in criminal charges to be cut in half, saying such arrests erode public confidence in the Police Department, according to a report released yesterday.
"If the staggering number of arrests is to be validated, the percentage of arrests without merit must be drastically reduced," the report says. The jurors also said that frequent police stops of residents is an approach "bordering on violating a person's constitutional rights."
The panel of 23 grand jurors that met from September to January was asked by a Baltimore Circuit Court judge to "address the lack of confidence that exists between many members of the public and law enforcement."
The grand jury appears to have done its research by reviewing media reports and arrest statistics, as well as speaking with each other and with "several" residents, though the report does not say how many. Grand jurors talked to one person from the Police Department, the head of education and training.
The report gives about two dozen recommendations, but few are specific. One example: "Improve the quality of narcotics arrests." One recommendation was to reduce "arrests without merit" - an apparent reference to arrests that don't result in charges - by at least 50 percent before the end of this year.
The report cites a state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services report that 21,721 African-Americans in Baltimore were arrested but not charged between April 2004 and March 2005. Grand jurors said this number shows that "countless people ... have been harassed."
Lt. Paul M. Blair Jr., president of the city police union, had not read the report, but he said that the recommendation to make fewer arrests conflicts with what officers hear at neighborhood meetings where residents complain about quality-of-life issues.
"Can they tell us which neighborhoods we should stop making arrests in?" Blair asked. "It sounds like it was a waste of paper if that's all they came out with."
Matt Jablow, a Police Department spokesman, said the phrase "without merit" does not make sense. "Officers are not allowed to make arrests without merit," he said. "There has to be probable cause, and that is merit."
If the grand jury is referring to reducing the number of arrests that fail to result in criminal charges, Jablow said, "we share that sentiment." He said the department has taken steps to improve training and report-writing.
The percentage of arrests that fail to generate charges has decreased from 23 percent in December to 14 percent last month, said Kristen Mahoney, chief of technical services for the city Police Department, referring to public safety statistics.
The main function of a grand jury is to decide which criminal cases warrant indictments. Among the cases handled by this grand jury were the indictments of three Southwestern District officers. One officer is accused of raping a woman brought to the station house in handcuffs, and the other two are accused of doing nothing to stop it.
The grand jury is forbidden to discuss individual cases it hears, so those indictments are not mentioned in its report, nor is a public hearing in early January at which the police commissioner and mayor were criticized for what residents called aggressive tactics.
Circuit Judge Joseph P. McCurdy assigned the topic in September, on the heels of a Sun report about two judges saying in open court that they didn't believe police officers who were testifying in two particular cases.
"This is something the community as a whole needs to address," McCurdy said at the time.
Five years ago, another judge assigned a grand jury to study whether the public was losing confidence in the Police Department. This latest grand jury report was intended to build on those findings, which found distrust, McCurdy said. The judge did not return phone calls yesterday.
The jurors - 21 women and two men - devoted 20 pages of their report to McCurdy's topic, touching on everything from media coverage to the number of arrests. Several recommendations were made for each topic.
Police officers should be "retrained to use better judgment and common sense in determining if an individual is actually involved in criminal activity."
Increase neighborhood patrols and build relationships by having officers participate in programs such as the Police Athletic League and school programs.
Create a public service announcement "emphasizing the progress that the [Police Department] has made."
Jablow, the police spokesman, said the report would be "a useful tool" in the department's efforts to build relationships. "We'll do whatever it takes to make this a safer city and to improve relations with citizens," he said.
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