Where Murderers Reign, It’s ‘Catch and Release’ for Low-Level Crimes

Baltimore police face new hurdles to make arrests on minor crimes. Critics say it will make things worse in the crime-plagued city.

A Baltimore police cruiser is seen parked near a building while officers check on a call on Feb. 18. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

BALTIMORE (CN) — Citing the policy of State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, Baltimore City police commanders have all but forbidden arrests for drug dealing, prostitution, public urination and defecation, and an array of other nonviolent crimes.

A deputy commissioner’s memo, supplied to Courthouse News anonymously on Sunday night, instructs officers in the crime-plagued city to obtain permission from a supervising lieutenant before charging anyone for minor crimes.  

“This is ridiculous,” former BPD officer Joe Crystal, tweeted in response to the memo. “This is going to blow up in everyone’s face. I don’t believe @MarilynMosbyEsq would be trying to force this on BPD if she wasn’t the subject of a federal investigation. My prediction is crime in Baltimore will hit an all time high.” 

Asked to authenticate the memo, a Baltimore Police spokesman suggested it was a year old, citing the 2020 date. He did not reply when asked to explain how its author predicted the State’s Attorney’s March 26, 2021, press conference.

Monday morning on Twitter, the president of the Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police denounced the new policy: “With new police reform who is going to help our older citizens trapped in drug-ridden neighborhoods. Addicts, disorderly & trespassers now have free rein on their porches & yards thanks to the new policies and laws of @MarilynMosbyEsq, Harrison, & General Assembly?#500copsshort

The weekend controversy was the latest in the department’s strained history with the top prosecutor, who took office in 2015 and won reelection last year. Mosby cited lower crime in indefinitely continuing the policy, adopted in part to stem the spread of Covid-19 in city jails. Two weeks ago, news leaked of a federal grand jury investigation into her finances and those of her husband, Nick, who was elected City Council president last fall. The investigation, which her lawyer denounced in a letter to the Justice Department as “frivolous, politically-motivated, and driven by the animus” of two federal prosecutors, appears to be focused on the couple’s income taxes. The prosecutor has recently feuded with a local online news outlet that has reported extensively on her finances, unearthing the existence of chartered side businesses and, more recently, the couple’s purchase of two houses in Florida. 

After news of the federal probe broke, Mosby held a news conference and took to a local radio station to tout her policies, saying crime had fallen on her watch. 

“Clearly, the data suggest there is no public safety value in prosecuting low-level offenses,” Mosby said at the March 26 news conference.

Even prior to the pandemic, her office stopped prosecuting marijuana possession and even moved in civil court to legally vacate marijuana-related convictions, a strategy that a former State’s Attorney termed a publicity stunt and which state judges quietly dismissed.

In February, a city inspector general found fault with Mosby’s extensive travel while in office, reporting that she had been “physically absent” for 85 days in 2018-19.

The investigation — which Mosby requested after the online Baltimore Brew reported on her finances and travel — touched off a battle with the IG, with Mosby demanding she alter the report’s conclusions and the local NAACP branch demanding answers as well. The inspector refused, and Mosby amended her state ethics disclosure while asserting in a press release that the state ethics commission had exonerated her.

The ethics commission, by policy, does not comment publicly on matters it reviews.

A spokeswoman for Mosby’s office did not reply to a request for comment. 

Meanwhile the Legislature passed a package of police and criminal justice reforms, limiting use of force, restricting search and seizure warrant raids to daytime hours, and repealing the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, which critics contend protects violent and lazy cops from internal discipline.

The Baltimore Police Department, battered by corruption, has been operating under a federal consent decree for five years, and its union says it has 500 fewer officers than are authorized. While Mosby and others cite lower crime statistics, the city has seen record-breaking numbers of murders nearly every year she has been in office, jumping from the low 200s in 2014 to the mid-300s in 2015 and staying over 300 each year since. Baltimore has seen 85 murders so far in 2021, three more than at the same date last year, when 337 were killed.

Critics of the state’s attorney and police commissioner say the true measure is the homicides, and that ending low-level arrests will harm efforts to solve them.

“That memo was proof that they don’t understand the dynamics of what the officers and the communities are facing,” says Anthony Barksdale, a retired deputy commissioner who takes credit for the years of relatively lower homicides the city enjoyed a decade ago. He says it’s unrealistic to expect a beat cop to approach a lieutenant — his boss’s boss — for permission to make a minor arrest. And that by taking that option away from the cop, low-level criminality will proliferate, and high-level crimes will be harder to solve. 

“That document stops police from getting one the most crucial things they can get, and that’s criminal informants,” he says. “The people at the bottom know so much. Sometimes a conversation with them, when you caught them doing something illegal, is worth more than 1,000 hours of overtime.”

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