In the wake of a report earlier this month that indicated Baltimore locks up a higher percentage of its population than any major metropolitan area in the nation, the city agreed to pay $870,000 to the victims of what some call “illegal arrests.”

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a joint lawsuit in 2006 on behalf of 14 people whose arrests were symbolic of thousands of so-called illegal arrests, which took place over the course of several years. The settlement was approved by the Baltimore City Board of Estimates June 23.

“Due to the arrogance of a mayor and his administration, hundreds if not thousands of Baltimore City men were unconstitutionally arrested, not charged with anything, but left in Central Booking with an arrest record,” said Marvin “Doc” Cheatham, president of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP.

“The NAACP and ACLU were forced to sue then-Mayor Martin O’Malley, the police commissioner and most everyone related to this ‘zero tolerance arrest policy’ … Now we have to closely review the work of the auditor to see that justice is done because presently police are illegally arresting citizens, just not to the magnitude that it was,” Cheatham added.

Among the illegal arrests made during the height of the zero tolerance policing policy are two college-bound women arrested and jailed after being stopped for not wearing a seat belt, and a female bus driver taken from her bus – while passengers were on board – for questioning the actions of police during another arrest. There was a young man sitting on the front steps of his employer, who was detained for 72 hours because he had to take a paternity test.

There were literally hundreds of horror stories connected to Baltimore citizens who were arrested and held in the notorious Central Booking Intake Center, in some cases for more than 72 hours without ever being charged with a crime.

The settlement mandates the city retrain officers, review “quality of life” arrests like loitering and littering, and install an independent auditor to evaluate data and submit semiannual reports. The Baltimore City Police Department also agreed to officially reject the zero-tolerance policies and create new methods for dealing with low-level offenses.

Current Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley was mayor of Baltimore from 1999 to 2007, and it was during that time the “zero tolerance” policing policy was allegedly established. He argues the settlement is not a rebuke of his polices when he was mayor. “There was never, ever a policy that asked officers to go beyond the Constitution,” O’Malley said during a press conference June 23.

In 2005 more than 108,000 people were booked and processed at the Central Booking component of the Baltimore City Jail. Over 6,000 arrests were made in the month of April that year alone and the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s office threw out 2,053 of those arrests.

Maryland Delegate Jill P. Carter battled the zero tolerance policy by introducing legislation in the Maryland General Assembly and participating in public demonstrations for several years.

“My efforts to stop illegal arrests of the 750,000 persons from 1999-2006 led to negative political repercussions,” Carter said. “But, it also forced the change of policy we have today.”

Frederick Bealefeld III became Baltimore’s permanent police commissioner in 2007 and since that time arrests have been significantly reduced and crime numbers – including homicides – have also seen dramatic reductions.
However, Cheatham says the city’s systemic problems still have not been adequately addressed.
“Baltimore has significant drug, unemployment, addicted and school drop-out problems,” Cheatham said. “Our leadership continues to fail us time and time again … sadly we cannot count on our elected officials.”

Noted Baltimore defense attorney Warren A. Brown handled several high profile illegal arrest cases in 2005. “Unfortunately, it creates a mentality that we really can’t be safe in the streets from either the thugs or the police,” Brown said in 2005. “And for those of us who live in the community that’s a helluva’ situation to be in when you can’t trust either.”


Sean Yoes

AFRO Baltimore Editor