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Anger at police harassment and violence bubbles up to the surface
What's rotten in Baltimore?

February 3, 2006 | Page 2

ALANA SMITH reports from Baltimore about the growing anger at police misconduct and violence.

THERE'S SOMETHING rotten in Baltimore, and it's the criminal justice system. This is nothing that residents of Baltimore don't already know, but the anger they feel about it is finally breaking the surface.

On January 4, a crowd of over 200 booed and heckled Mayor Martin O'Malley and Police Commissioner Leonard Hamm at a clamorous legislative hearing held to examine police tactics.

State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy spoke about the number of arrests being made without probable cause, indicating for the first time that she believed the police were acting unconstitutionally. When Hamm said, "Our officers do not make illegal arrests," many people booed and cried, "Yes they do!"

O'Malley and Hamm drew pointed questions from some state delegates and senators, including state Sen. Lisa Gladden, who suggested that police are more likely to arrest Black residents for offenses white residents only receive citations for.

The statistics that Jessamy provided on the number of arrests made without probable cause are astounding. During August 2005, Jessamy said, nearly 9,000 people were brought to Central Booking and nearly a third of them weren't charged.

More than 1,000 of those cases were "abated by arrest," meaning that the offense was stopped by the arrest itself, requiring no judicial action. Another 1,882 of the cases fit under the heading "could not prove"--including 408 drug cases, 248 arrests for trespassing and 845 loitering cases.

In other words, Baltimore police officers routinely arrest innocent people without cause, putting literally thousands of people being bars every year before prosecutors release them without charge.

For at least one man, being arrested resulted in his death. In May 2005, Raymond Smoot was beaten and killed by officers at Baltimore's overcrowded booking facility.

Central Booking, which opened in 1995, was designed to process up to 45,000 people annually, but has handled more than double that amount. Smoot was being held on a petty theft charge and couldn't afford the $150 bail.

On January 20, Smoot's family--which has been very active in organizing regular protests and vigils since Raymond was killed--filed a $130 million lawsuit alleging that state and correctional officers acted negligently in failing to correct dangerous conditions.

Already furious at unfair and illegal arrests, and the fatally dangerous conditions at Central Booking, Baltimore residents were further outraged two days after the legislative hearing when three officers from the Southwestern District's flex squad were indicted on charges that one forced a woman to have sex with him in a stationhouse office, while the others did nothing to stop it.

The rape charges stem from a December 27 incident in which a 22-year-old woman in custody says she was coerced into having sex in exchange for her freedom, while two officers stood by. Since the investigation was made public, defense attorneys, prosecutors and community members have said that they have heard many complaints about officers on the district's flex squad planting drugs, stealing cell phones and other exploitative practices. Hamm admitted that allegations of this kind have been raised before.

Suspicion of Baltimore police goes back decades, particularly among African American residents.

In an interview with the Baltimore Sun, Circuit Judge William Quarles remembered a 1964 police riot in which officers armed with submachine guns and tear gas raided 300 homes of Black residents, looking for suspects in the killing of a police officer. "Many people, although themselves too young to remember such incidents, grew up with attitudes influenced by people who recall that and other instances," Quarles said.

The state's race to execute

THE WELL-founded mistrust of Baltimore police and a feeling that racism runs rampant through the criminal justice system is coming to a head at a time when the debate over the death penalty is heating up in Maryland.

Unless his appeals are heard, Vernon Evans will become another victim of Gov. Robert Ehrlich's execution spree some time during the week of February 6--two months after Wesley Baker was put to death.

Both Vernon and Wesley were accused of murder and sent to death row in Baltimore County, a mostly white suburban area where prosecutors have made a career of putting Black men on death row.

No physical evidence linked Vernon to the crime he was sentenced to death for--only dubious testimony from a jailhouse snitch and an inconsistent eyewitness. Following a pattern that a University of Maryland study detected throughout the state's death penalty system, Vernon's trial was marked by racism--for example, the prosecutor used eight of his 10 challenges against Black jurors.

The case has gained new attention because of growing doubts about the death penalty, and press interviews profiling Vernon, who writes an Internet blog from behind bars.

But unfortunately, the case hasn't gotten much attention from Ehrlich's Democratic opponents. Ehrlich's predecessor Parris Glendening has written several recent op-ed articles calling for a renewed moratorium on executions, but his words are being ignored by fellow party leaders.

On the contrary, Baltimore's Mayor O'Malley--one of the frontrunners to be Ehrlich's competition in the next election for governor--is too busy defending the illegal practices of his police force to address the issue.

Vernon has appealed to Gov. Ehrlich for clemency. Tell Ehrlich to stop the execution by calling 1-800-811-8336, or e-mail him by visiting www.gov.state.md.us/mail/.

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