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Baltimore PD making fewer improper arrests, assessment finds

“People should get used to hearing good news about BPD, and not just bad news,” an oversight director stated

Baltimore Police Department

From 2019 to 2021, the Baltimore Police Department reduced the number of arrests lacking probable cause from 10.4% of a sample analyzed by a judge-appointed team monitoring its compliance with a consent decree to 4%. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun/TNS)

Ulysses Muñoz/TNS

By Darcy Costello
The Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — Baltimore Police likely made thousands of unlawful arrests between 2010 and 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice found in its 2016 investigation of the department, which led to a sweeping federal consent decree requiring reforms.

Those arrests, according to the Justice Department report, included incidents where officers lacked probable cause or failed to give proper warning — a pattern that federal investigators attributed to the agency’s “approach to street-level crime suppression.”

In the years since, as the Baltimore Police Department worked to remedy a slew of unconstitutional policing practices identified in the report, it appears the agency has improved at making arrests with probable cause.

From 2019 to 2021, the department reduced the number of arrests lacking probable cause from 10.4% of a sample analyzed by the judge-appointed team monitoring its compliance with the consent decree to 4%. The assessment, released last month, further found that when officers do make arrests without probable cause, it’s most often due to “unintentional errors,” rather than a larger departmental strategy.

Shannon Sullivan, BPD’s Consent Decree Implementation Unit director, said the latest assessment shows the department is “not the same agency that it was five, six, seven years ago.”

Yet hurdles remain to achieving full compliance with the consent decree’s expectations around stops, searches and arrests.

The public is still waiting, for instance, for a larger analysis of non-arrest encounters. That fuller accounting is required to include the percentage of stops and detentions that uncover evidence of criminal activity, the percentage of frisks that lead to the seizure of weapons and the percentage of searches that lead to evidence being seized, including the nature of the seizure.

Importantly, the consent decree also calls for analyzing the department’s pedestrian stops, vehicle stops and arrests for misdemeanor offenses by demographics — race, gender and ethnicity — of the individuals targeted, along with the outcomes of those actions.

Kenneth Thompson, the consent decree monitor, said in a statement that the team has not yet assessed those types of incidents for compliance because the Baltimore Police Department is still working to reliably capture data about those events — a delay he and police attributed to necessary technological upgrades.

The agency has implemented a new record management system, which Sullivan compared to going from “the Stone Age to the Space Age in the matter of a year.” That system has required some tweaks since 2021, but the department believes it’s now in a “really good place.”

Delays were “not totally unexpected,” according to Thompson. He added that BPD’s timeline is consistent with that in other jurisdictions, and not reflective of any lack of urgency. Rather, he said, the delays are reflective of the “dismal condition BPD’s technology system was in” and the “deliberate steps that BPD had to take to fix this massive problem.”

The information that will be collected will be vital in assessing the department’s current practices. Among the possibilities: determining whether the department has remedied racial disparities in officers’ stops, searches and arrests, as Marguerite E. Lanaux, the district public defender for Baltimore City, highlighted in an email to The Baltimore Sun.

“After studying the department, the DOJ concluded that BPD disproportionately stops, searches, arrests and uses unnecessary force against Black people,” Lanaux wrote. “While the BPD asserts it has reformed, BPD has yet to produce the necessary data to demonstrate that it has, in fact, changed its racially biased policing practices that the DOJ exposed.”

The arrest assessment, using data available to the monitor team, didn’t find a consistent flaw in the arrests that lacked probable cause. The most common error, according to the report, was insufficient evidence that the observed behavior constituted a crime. Other types of errors included using nervousness or flight from police as too much justification for the arrest, or using supporting evidence obtained from an unlawful stop or unlawful pre-arrest search.

But the assessment did find that officers could improve their arrest report writing, including around probable cause explanations.

One of the ways the team assessed officers’ report writing was evaluating how often officers used “boilerplate language” without further elaboration. Language such as “high crime area,” “furtive movement” or “characteristics of an armed person” must be combined with specific facts, the assessment said. In 2021, 6% of reports used boilerplate terms without supporting details.

The current police commissioner, Richard Worley, stepped into controversy earlier this year when he stated that officers attempted to stop someone displaying “characteristics of an armed person.” Critics derided his language as unspecific or made-up terminology to justify a stop.

Report writing was included in the training done by the department to roll out its stops, searches and arrests policy changes in 2021, Sullivan said. And it will be part of an upcoming annual refresher training next year.

The agency has made investments in policy and training development, Sullivan said, and she expects future monitoring team assessments to show “further progress.”

“People should get used to hearing good news about BPD, and not just bad news,” Sullivan said.

A quarterly public hearing on the consent decree and the department’s progress is scheduled for Jan. 25 in federal court.


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