Zero Tolerance Policing…A historical perspective

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(Image courtesy of www.surrey-pcc.gov.uk)
(afro.com) -On April 12, Sandtown-Winchester resident Freddie Gray looked into the eyes of a Baltimore police officer, and whatever he saw there caused him to run. After a brief chase, he was arrested for possession of a pocketknife that was later deemed legal under state law. One week later, the 25-year-old man was dead from a broken spine and other injuries sustained while trussed up in the back of a police transport vehicle.
Gray’s death spawned outrage in Baltimore and, beyond that, manifested in violent clashes with police, looting and arson on at least one occasion in Charm City. More significantly, Gray’s death, the unrest and the subsequent indictment of six officers involved in the incident spurred discussions about the relationship between minority communities and police, particularly the impact of a controversial zero tolerance policing policy. It’s an issue the AFRO has chronicled since such policy’s introduction to Baltimore back in the 1990s.
In 1999, then-Baltimore City Councilman Martin O’Malley, D-District 3, made an unexpected entry into the race for the mayoral seat left open when incumbent Mayor Kurt Schmoke decided not to seek re-election. The lone Caucasian among a field of primary candidates, O’Malley ran on a platform of public safety, preaching a zero tolerance policing strategy, which he had advocated for on the City Council, as a cure to the city’s crime.
The issue was one that played out on the pages of the AFRO, with columnists, experts and residents mostly expressing doubt about the policing approach that was modeled after New York’s.
As early as January 1997, then-State’s Attorney Patricia Jessamy expressed caution about Baltimore’s adoption of the approach in an opinion piece titled, “Zero Tolerance – What does it mean?” Because Baltimore had different laws, less police manpower and fewer resources than New York, translating a zero tolerance policy to the smaller city would not necessarily work, she advised.
“Increasing the caseloads through more arrests and citations, places extraordinary strains on a system already lacking in resources. If we expect the criminal justice system to be efficient, effective and expeditious, the entire criminal justice system must be adequately funded and given the resources needed to get the job done,” she wrote.
In an April 2, 1999 AFRO commentary “Zero tolerance or no tolerance,” writer Joseph Brown Jr.—a local community and Republican Party leader—opined, “Zero tolerance has been hailed as the cure-all for crime-ridden cities. It trains its police officers to be more aggressive in the pursuit of criminals whether it is a jaywalker or a drug peddler. Both are treated as criminals.” However, he added, the approach will encourage an “arrogance” among “rogue” officers that would “exacerbate an already tense relationship between the citizens of Baltimore and its police department.”
In a September 1999 AFRO commentary entitled “The New York Experience,” Wiley A. Hall supported Brown’s statements, citing examples from New York’s own “broken windows” policing that resulted in incidents such as the Aug. 9, 1997 torture—including forced sodomy— of Abner Louima by police officers in Brooklyn, N.Y., and the Feb. 4, 1999 police killing of an unarmed 22-year-old Amadou Diallou outside his Bronx apartment.
The New York judicial system has been clogged with “junk” arrests of mostly Black and Latino residents; thousands of New Yorkers have been jailed without ever being charged for a crime; and the city has had to pay out millions of dollars to settle brutality complaints against its officers, Hall wrote.
“Zero tolerance policing is like Pandora’s Box. Once you unleash the police, it is very difficult to reign them in,” he said. “And police traditionally have resisted attempts to hold them accountable by outsiders. Baltimore’s Complaint Evaluations Board is virtually toothless and there is no serious proposal to create a civilian review board with bite.”
During Baltimore’s primary, O’Malley insisted Baltimore could learn from New York’s mistakes. “We can police the police,” he during the Sept. 7 televised debate on WMAR-TV, as reported by the AFRO.
O’Malley continued to defend his crime-fighting approach—which he referred to as “quality of life policing”—in an October 1999 AFRO article, “O’Malley under fire over zero tolerance strategy.”
“It’s not a suspension of the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. It’s not police brutality or encouraging police to be more aggressive,” said O’Malley at the time. “It is directing and supporting the police to be more assertive about improving the quality of life on corners throughout the city. Not just downtown or parts of the city where we would never tolerate the 24-7 open-air drug-markets we so readily ride by in other neighborhoods.”
Voters seemed to believe him. And, despite a tough primary, in which he was the only Caucasian among the field of candidates, O’Malley earned the endorsement of State Delegate Howard Pete Rawlings, State Senator Joan Carter Conway among other notable African-American lawmakers, pastors and other community leaders (including this newspaper), resulting in his victory in the September primary (with 53 percent of the votes) and the General Election.
In an Oct. 22, 1999 article referencing continuing concern with the policy, AFRO writer Vicki T. Lee interviewed New York management consultant Jack Maple, who along with former New York cop Edward Norris were considered architects of the “zero tolerance” policing strategy.
By April 2000, AFRO journalist Sean Yoes was reporting that Maple and his fellow law enforcement consultant John Linder had authored Mayor O’Malley’s “much-maligned” crime-fighting plan titled, “Dramatically Reducing Crime in Baltimore.” He also reported that Norris, formerly the deputy police commissioner, had been elevated to acting police commissioner after the unceremonious ouster of Baltimore City Police Commissioner Ron Daniel—who reportedly did not support the plan—after a mere 57 days on the job. Yoes, reflecting the conspiracy theories and doubts that abounded in Baltimore’s Black community, questioned whether Norris’ elevation to the top post was “inevitable,” and whether Daniel’s initial appointment was meant to “put a ‘Black face’ on zero tolerance.”
“…It was widely speculated that a White mayor of a predominantly Black city could not put another White man in charge of Baltimore’s Police Department, especially if that candidate had to implement so-called zero tolerance, a strategy widely viewed as hostile to people of color,” the author wrote.
As the years went by, complaints among Baltimore’s Black community increased, including the belief that O’Malley’s police plan was not addressing the real source of crime—the drug trade. That belief was brought into stark reality with the October 2002 murder of the Dawson family, whose home was firebombed after the mother, Angela Dawson complained about the activities of drug dealers near her home. Many residents expressed frustration that officials knew about the escalating threats against the family but did not do enough to protect the family.
“There’s too much focus today on petty crime, somebody drinking in the park, instead of marshaling our forces against drug dealers,” former cop, Bennie Nealey, a 27-year veteran, told AFRO reporter Earl Byrd.
People like then-state Sen. Clarence Mitchell IV disputed that zero tolerance was even working, saying in an April 2002 article that when Norris first came on board, a report came out of the New York attorney general’s office as to whether zero tolerance was good for their city.
“We said let’s wait and look at the report. They went ahead and voted him in, 19-0. But the report concluded that zero tolerance did not decrease crime.
“Now, two years later, we’re going to show that shootings are up [in Baltimore], murder is up, crime is up, so why should Norris be confirmed”?
By 2005, the clamoring of voices decrying the explosion of “illegal arrests” under O’Malley’s zero tolerance plan—and an alleged police department quota program that rewarded and punished officers based on the volume of arrests—had grown louder.
“Unfortunately, it creates a mentality that we really can’t be safe in the streets from either the thugs or the police,” said noted Baltimore defense attorney Warren A. Brown, who handled several high profile illegal arrest cases 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.”
In an August 2005 article titled, “Baltimore City On Lockdown,” AFRO reporter Sean Yoes told the story of Derrick Jessup, who was held for nine days in the bowels of Baltimore Central Booking without an explanation for his detainment.
“Nine days later,” Jessup is quoted as saying, “I’m just getting to see somebody for them to say, ‘You need to take a paternity test.’ Nine days of just suffering down there. I could have lost my job.”
The story went on to point out the disparate arrest rates between Baltimore and other Maryland jurisdictions.
Jessup was one of the 95,907 people booked in Baltimore City between April 2004 and March 2005, compared to 45,168 arrests combined in eight other counties, according to Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services statistics cited in the story. More disturbing, however, was the fact that 21,721 of those booked in Baltimore were not charged, compared to 179 persons in the eight other jurisdictions.
“We’re talking about unlawful, illegal arrests where there is no probable cause. We’re talking about minor, petty offenses that are so insignificant that the state’s attorney’s office is deciding that even if it happens … we’re not even going to waste our time charging this,” said then-state Del. Jill Carter, D-Dist. 41, who spent years fighting the measure.
On Jan. 5, 2006, public outrage over the overcriminalization of Baltimore’s poor and minority residents exploded at a public hearing on law enforcement policy at the War Memorial Building in downtown Baltimore. Officials, particularly Mayor O’Malley—who left right after his testimony—were jeered and booed; and residents left with heavy doubts that anything would be done. None of the officials admitted that people were being arrested without reasonable cause.
“This community is a powder keg; this thing is going to explode and it’s going to be ugly. … History tells us that,” Dr. Tyrone Powers, a WEAA-FM host and director of the Institute for Criminal Justice, Legal Studies and Public Service at Anne Arundel Community College, told AFRO reporter Zenitha Prince at the meeting. “All the ingredients are there, and if we don’t do something to defuse this bomb, there is going to be an explosion.”
In June of that year, the AFRO reported that the ACLU of Maryland had filed a lawsuit on behalf of the NAACP and several residents decrying the allegedly illegal arrests. Along with the Police Department, the suit named as defendants O’Malley, then-Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Mary Ann Saar, then-Police Commissioner Leonard Hamm, and former Police Commissioners Edward T. Norris and Kevin P. Clark.
“Despite the patently unconstitutional and illegal nature of this conduct and its detrimental effects on the Baltimore residents whom the laws are supposed to protect, city officials have refused to end this practice, and the rights violations are continuing in the state’s central booking facility,” Deborah Jeon, ACLU’s legal director, said at the time. “The time has come to rein in this abuse of power and stop these unconstitutional and illegal acts.”
Marvin “Doc” Cheatham, president of the Baltimore NAACP at the time, told the AFRO that many of the persons who were arrested on frivolous charges and later released face a lifetime of repercussions.
“Innocent people are getting caught in the dragnet and their arrest record will follow them for the rest of their lives,” he said. “An arrest record seriously affects your ability to get jobs and housing, which already is a big challenge for so many people here in the city of Baltimore.”
In June 2010, a report was released indicating that Baltimore locks up a higher percentage of its population than any major metropolitan area in the nation. That same month, the AFRO reported that the city agreed to pay $870,000 to the victims of the so-called illegal arrests.
According to Del. Carter, at least 750,000 persons were illegally arrested from 1999-2006.
The settlement also called for officer retraining, an independent auditor and for an official rejection of the zero-tolerance policing policy championed by O’Malley.
Still, O’Malley—by then the governor of Maryland—said the settlement was hardly a rebuke of his mayoral administration’s marquee policy. “There was never, ever a policy that asked officers to go beyond the Constitution,” O’Malley said during a press conference June 23, 2010, the AFRO reported.
In 2015, the explosion Powers predicted back in 2006 occurred, ignited by the death of Freddie Gray. Now the city is trying to pick up the pieces, and dealing with the lingering impact of zero tolerance policing will undoubtedly be part of Baltimore’s recovery.

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