Wednesday, January 04, 2006

No Order at Baltimore's Law and Order Hearing

from The League: Reassembled

Tonight's hearing on law enforcement strategies in Baltimore, held by the city's Senate and House delegations, was one of the strangest, most chaotic legislative hearings I have ever attended. From Pen Lucy Community Association Vice President Robert Nowlin's pronouncement that "I'm blind, black and bald, but I'm happy" to black power groups waving flags at white Mayor Martin O'Malley, it was one hell of an evening.

The hearing was called by Democratic Delegate Jill Carter (District 41) to explore concern over so-called "illegal arrests" in the city. Critics have complained that increasing arrests for "quality-of-life" crimes, such as public urination or loitering, cause undue hardship on those taken down to Central Booking, especially since many are never formally charged with a crime. The issue received renewed attention when it became evident that arrestees were held at Central Booking hours and days longer than permissible under law and that conditions in the state-run facility are dangerous. The hearing also considered police tactics which do more to harm civil liberties than to make our communities safer. For example, the Sun's Gus Sentementes documented police abuse of the "stop-and-frisk" tactic in which people (usually black males in impoverished areas) walking down the street are stopped and patted down, often with no probable cause. In addition, the police cameras with flashing blue lights mounted in high-crime areas are eerily Owellian.

Although called to address issues of law and order the hearing was absent any sense of order. Hundreds of people packed into the hot Paul C. Woman Assembly Hall Room at the War Memorial Building. More people were standing than sitting in the overcrowded meeting hall. From the first speaker, it was apparent the public would not be content with passive observance. When Mayor O'Malley was called to address the panel, he was met with loud "Boo's!" Many responded to the Mayor's defense of his crime policy with shouts of "That's a lie!" and "Maybe we should arrest you!" When he finally finished answering questions posed by the polite yet rather hostile panel of legislators, he was escorted out of the room to shouts of "Shame! Shame!" and even a little "Black power!" Each witness was treated to similar behavior from the gallery.

Despite the rowdy, chaotic atmosphere, the hearing eeked out a little productivity. Angry citizens cathardically used the forum to vent their anger over police abuse of tactics. And, promisingly, Police Commissioner Leonard Hamm announced that the Department will revise its stop-and-frisk policy and that police plan to distribute the ACLU's Know Your Rights card. (Although Meredith Curtis of the state ACLU told me that's the first she's heard of it.)

Even if the Department adopts meaningful revisions to its stop-and-frisk policy, there remains much more work to be done. Hopefully the House and Senate delegations will address these concerns when the Maryland General Assembly session begins next Wednesday.

from The League: Reassembled

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