04/24/2006

Baltimore tightens arrest policy

Rate of people released without charges declines, figures show

Copyright 2006 The Baltimore Sun Company 
 
By GUS G. SENTEMENTES
The Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE, Md. — The rate of people being arrested and released without charges in Baltimore each month has been cut about in half since last year, according to statistics from the city state's attorney's office and the state agency that runs the Central Booking and Intake Center.

The numbers suggest that the Baltimore Police Department — responding to months of sharp public criticism — can claim at least some success in its latest efforts to improve the quality of arrests, including extra training for officers.

A dispute over the department's arrest policies heated up last year as some city leaders and advocates, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union, decried what they described as a high number of people — a few thousand a month in many instances — who were being arrested on minor offenses and released without charges.

Critics have focused much of their public pressure on Mayor Martin O'Malley, who has made public safety a centerpiece of his run for governor. O'Malley tried to address concerns about the Police Department over a chorus of boos at a contentious public hearing in January.

At the same hearing, Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm told members of the city's state legislative delegation that police officials were increasing training and supervision for officers to improve the quality of charging documents that they filed.

In a recent letter to Del. Jill P. Carter, a frequent critic of the arrest policies, Hamm said he had confidence that the department's plans are addressing the arrest issue.

"I told the city delegation that we took this issue seriously," Hamm wrote in the April 12 letter, a copy of which the Police Department provided to The Sun. "While we are far from declaring victory on this topic, I do believe that the most recent statistics released by the State of Maryland deserve positive recognition."

Hamm noted that police have worked with city and federal prosecutors, and the Maryland attorney general's office, to revise the department's training curriculum for officers, particularly in areas involving search and seizure. He said that more than 900 officers have received such training.

Carter said in an interview that she had not yet received the letter but that she is pleased to hear that the arrest declination rate has been reduced.

"We asked the mayor to fix the problem, so I'm happy," Carter said. "I'm pleased to see they're moving in the direction that they were supposed to be moving in anyway. ... I think this is a direct response from the pressure put on them from the public."

But, she added: "I don't think it's anything to brag about. You're supposed to train your officers."

As of mid-April, the Police Department reported an 11 percent decline in total arrests this year, compared with the same period last year.

The apparent improvement in the quality of arrests comes at a time when reports of violent crime have increased in the city this year by 13 percent as of mid-April. Property crime is up 2 percent, police statistics show.

The arrest declination figures that Hamm noted in the letter to Carter are drawn from statistics compiled by the state agency that runs the Central Booking and Intake Center.

The state figures show that that 7,215 people were booked at Central Booking, and 851 people — 11.7 percent — were released without charges in March. These figures include people arrested by other law enforcement agencies in Baltimore and brought to Central Booking, as well as people arrested on warrants.

That's a decline from March 2005, when 23 percent of people arrested were freed without any charges, according to the state agency.

Figures compiled by the city state's attorney's office show a similar, decreasing rate of arrest declinations, though the total arrest numbers are usually lower. Prosecutors do not include cases where people are arrested on warrants, since they can't decline those cases, limiting their statistics only to "on-view" arrests made by officers, according to Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the city state's attorney's office.

In on-view cases, an officer typically sees a person commit a crime, makes an arrest and brings the person to Central Booking. Examples include cases such as drug possession, disorderly conduct, loitering, urinating in public, trespassing and other "quality of life" offenses.

According to these state's attorney's office figures, prosecutors reviewed 5,242 such "on-view" arrests and declined to press charges in 945 cases, or 18 percent, last month. In March 2005, prosecutors reviewed 6,467 cases and declined to press charges in 2,097, a 32 percent declination rate.

"There is a decrease in the number of [people] released without charges, but the numbers are still high, and they need to improve," Burns said. "It's still 30 people a day. It's still very, very high." In about one-quarter to one-third of cases that are declined, prosecutors determine that pursuing charges was not necessary because the crime was "abated by arrest" — meaning the criminal activity had been resolved by taking the suspect into custody, and that no further prosecution was necessary, according to the city state's attorney's office.

David Rocah, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Maryland, said the city Police Department and the state's attorney's office "need to start acting like they're on the same team." He pointed to what he said were hundreds of loitering arrests each month that were dismissed because police did not have probable cause to take people into custody.

"Any reduction in the number of people being arrested and not charged is a good thing," Rocah said. "But I think it's way beyond premature to say that the problem has been solved."

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