Councilman wants city law enforcement to explore ways to reduce low-level arrests

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As Baltimore’s new top cop seeks to lead BPD into an era of reform and mend police-community ties, city lawmakers are calling for a criminal justice officials to get together to discuss ways to reduce low-level arrests wherever possible.

Councilman Robert Stokes (12th District) is proposing a resolution at tonight’s city council meeting calling on police, prosecutors, the sheriff’s department and others to explore “alternative enforcement strategies outside of traditional arrest.” The rest of the council has already signed on as co-sponsors.

Stokes told Baltimore Fishbowl that by alternatives, he primarily means citations, not arrests, for petty offenses—not violent crimes, he adamantly noted—such as selling items without a peddlers license, loitering or nonviolent alcohol-related offenses like open container. Officers could use more discretion in ticketing instead of cuffing people, he said, reducing prolonged injurious effects on an arrestee’s life resulting from a single run-in with police.

Stokes said the idea for his resolution arose from stories he’s heard from locals who’ve been arrested, and from talks with around a dozen young people who he’s been meeting with for the last four or five weeks.

“Some people wait in jail for weeks for a misdemeanor, and then they end up losing their job,” Stokes said. Others struggle to find employment as a result of having a criminal record. And still others suffer even during the expungement process, which costs only $30 to apply for purging a crime from one’s criminal record. Stokes said he’s talked with people who worked with attorneys charging hundreds of dollars, preying on those who aren’t aware they can do it themselves or receive help from organizations like the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service.

Stokes touched on a familiar storyline for Baltimore, highlighting a problematic trend of Baltimore police relying too much on arrests as a policing tool (with roots tracing back, at least, to Martin O’Malley’s “zero tolerance” era) and disproportionately targeting black city residents. This is evident, very broadly speaking, in BPD’s archived monthly arrest totals on its Open Data portal, and in the U.S. Department of Justice’s 2016 investigative report on BPD, which found black Baltimoreans are arrested “at rates that significantly exceed relevant benchmarks for criminal activity.”

“I think it just needs to be looked at, and how we can take that barrier away from persons that look for employment or training opportunities,” Stokes said.

His resolution calls for BPD, the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office (neither of whom immediately responded to requests for comment), the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, the Baltimore City Sheriff’s Office and others with criminal justice-related duties “to appear before the City Council to discuss ways that we can rebuild trust between our citizens and the agents of the criminal justice system.”

It calls out to the city being in year two of its federal court-ordered consent decree, which pushes widespread reforms in part to repair police-community relations that have eroded under years of abuse and high-profile corruption by city police.

“The Baltimore City Council is interested in how the Baltimore Police Department can perform its law enforcement duties outside of traditional arrest, so as to build trust between civilians and police officers,” the text of the resolution reads.

At his confirmation hearing in February, Police Commissioner Michael Harrison pledged to make community relations a cornerstone of police reform. “Good police work is always about developing these positive relationships with members of our community, no matter who they are, no matter where they live and no matter what they do for a living.”

Stokes, whose Executive Appointments Committee unanimously approved Harrison that same evening, said today that the commissioner is “going in the right direction” so far, with more officers seen getting out of their cars while out on patrol, and by planning more measures to hold police accountable.

“It’s not gonna happen overnight,” Stokes stressed.

Cannabis possession has come front and center as an arrest-related issue, with data showing an overwhelming 96 percent of people jailed for the low-level drug crime in recent years—even after Maryland decriminalized possession of less than 10 grams in late 2014—are black.

In response to reporting by Baltimore Fishbowl and the Baltimore Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, prosecutors in January announced they would cease charging people arrested for weed possession, unless police produce evidence of distribution or intent to distribute, as if the individual also has baggies, a scale or other packaging goods.

But police haven’t bought into the change—nor did Mayor Catherine Pugh, who’s still out on leave amid scandal and a prolonged bout of pneumonia—and have defended their obligation to keep arresting people under state law.

Stokes said this resolution doesn’t cover cannabis possession because that’s an issue in and of itself. But he is planning to introduce a second resolution at the following council meeting on April 22, requesting a similar hearing involving prosecutors and police.

“There needs to be some conversation on how we meet in the middle, because there’s a lot of confusion out here,” Stokes said of the current limbo state on cannabis possession.

He acknowledged police are merely following Maryland law, and that the SAO has carved out its own rules. But, he posed, “What are we doing here? We’re wasting resources. We need to meet in the middle and have some dialogue.”

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Ethan McLeod

Senior Editor at Baltimore Fishbowl
Ethan has been editing and reporting for Baltimore Fishbowl since fall of 2016. His previous stops include Fox 45, CQ Researcher and Connection Newspapers in Virginia. His freelance writing has been featured in CityLab, Slate, Baltimore City Paper, DCist and elsewhere.
Ethan McLeod
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