A testy City Council committee hearing today regarding a new gun-crime sentencing bill yielded some collateral damage, along with a watered-down version of the original proposal.
Lawmakers unanimously adopted an amendment exempting many potential first-time illegal gun offenders from a proposed mandatory one-year prison term. However, despite that major change in the bill, the clashes between police and members of the public in the council chambers stole the show.
According to Twitter reports, a number of people who showed up to testify about the bill became frustrated that they’d been waiting for hours without getting a chance at the mic. What followed was a prolonged series of scuffles resulting in the arrests of two men, ages 27 and 29, and a woman requiring medical treatment.
WBAL-TV’s Jayne Miller captured some of the shouting and pushing, including some rough treatment by police toward attendees:
Things got testy at Baltimore City Council hearing as critics of gun bill & police clashed when protesters demanded to be heard pic.twitter.com/ssxeV9G6MP
— Jayne Miller (@jemillerwbal) July 25, 2017
Local activist group Baltimore Bloc said via Twitter that one of the arresting officers was Capt. Charles Thompson. City Paper reported two weeks ago that Thompson is among a group of police officials being sued by activists for allegedly helping to order the arrests of more than five-dozen people during a demonstration on I-83 last summer.
Police spokesman T.J. Smith said in an emailed statement that one of the two men arrested at City Hall complained of chest pains and was transported to a local hospital.
The eruption underscores the seriousness of the debate about mandatory sentencing here in Baltimore City. Nine days ago, Mayor Catherine Pugh, Council President Jack Young, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis and others announced their collective intention to pass a new ordinance that would mandate a one-year prison sentence for anyone caught illegally holding a gun within 300 feet of a school park, church or other public building (so, most of Baltimore).
Those officials said the ordinance would make city streets safer for all. Young argued it would “serve as a tool to help get the most dangerous and violent repeat offenders off the streets of Baltimore.” Davis used numbers to illustrate his point, noting 60 percent of defendants charged with illegal handgun possession since Jan. 1, 2016, have gotten suspended sentences by pleading out in court. He said those same people with a history of illegal gun violations are responsible for the bulk of Baltimore’s gun violence.
But right away, they received pushback from council members, including Ryan Dorsey, Kristerfer Burnett and Brandon Scott, who’ve pointed to evidence that indicates mandatory sentencing laws aren’t effective in other American cities and disproportionately imprison residents of black neighborhoods.
Councilman Zeke Cohen is also among the lawmakers opposed to the bill: in an op-ed in the Baltimore Brew, he wrote that the proposal is “a remnant of the ‘zero tolerance’ policing era, when politicians from both parties tripped over each other to appear toughest on crime.”
Due to the new bill amendment adopted this morning, the ordinance would now only apply the one-year mandatory sentence to second-time illegal gun offenders or those charged with other crimes while found illegally possessing a gun.
A notably absent party from this morning’s hearing: State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, or anyone from her office. The Sun‘s Justin Fenton reported city prosecutors didn’t submit written testimony for the hearing, either – a troubling development, given that her office would have discretion on whether (and how else) to charge illegal gun offenders under the new proposal.
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