Getting guns off the street

Our view: Bal­ti­more’s fail­ure to se­cure con­sis­tent con­vic­tions and jail time for gun of­fend­ers is a symp­tom of the de­fi­cien­cies out­lined in the DOJ report

Baltimore Sun - - MARYLAND VOICES -

City po­lice and pros­e­cu­tors have for the last sev­eral years preached the need to get “bad buys with guns” off the streets and have an­nounced as­sorted spe­cial ef­forts to do so, from a “war room” to the re­cent cre­ation of a new joint unit pair­ing ex­pe­ri­enced per­son­nel from the Po­lice De­part­ment and state’s at­tor­ney’s of­fice. Po­lice report they are mak­ing far more gun ar­rests, yet we are poised to ex­ceed 300 homi­cides for the sec­ond year in a row, a rate of killing not seen here since the 1990s.

Part of the ex­pla­na­tion for the dis­crep­ancy lies in Sun re­porter Justin Fen­ton’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion Sun­day re­veal­ing that when peo­ple are ar­rested on il­le­gal firearm charges in Bal­ti­more, they are less likely to be held with­out bail than in the past, their cases are dropped about a quar­ter of the time be­fore they get to trial, and those who are con­victed are given just a frac­tion of the jail time for which they are el­i­gi­ble, of­ten with large amounts of the sen­tence sus­pended. Po­lice Com­mis­sioner Kevin Davis has sought help from the leg­is­la­ture to toughen penal­ties for firearm vi­o­la­tions, and it’s true that some le­gal changes might help. State’s At­tor­ney Mar­i­lyn Mosby says she is work­ing to bring bet­ter co­or­di­na­tion be­tween pros­e­cu­tors and po­lice to pre­vent avoid­able er­rors that lead to cases fall­ing apart. That’s part of the solution, too.

But the roots of the prob­lem are deeper. There is a di­rect line be­tween the fail­ures of au­thor­i­ties to se­cure con­sis­tent jail time for gun crimes and the record of un­con­sti­tu­tional ac­tiv­ity and civil rights vi­o­la­tions doc­u­mented by the De­part­ment of Jus­tice in its report on the Bal­ti­more Po­lice De­part­ment. The sta­tis­tics-driven polic­ing DOJ in­ves­ti­ga­tors de­scribed in Bal­ti­more — a legacy of the zero-tol­er­ance strat­egy of a decade ago — has led both to sloppy po­lice work and an at­ti­tude of distrust among ju­ries, with the result be­ing that per­pe­tra­tors are more afraid of what will hap­pen if they don’t carry a gun than they are of what will hap­pen if they do.

Some of the 100 gun cases Mr. Fen­ton an­a­lyzed from the last sev­eral months il­lus­trate the point.

The DOJre­port doc­u­mented un­equal jus­tice in Bal­ti­more based on race and class, with res­i­dents of poor, mi­nor­ity neigh­bor­hoods far more likely to be stopped and searched than those in white, af­flu­ent com­mu­ni­ties — even though the stops po­lice did con­duct on whites were far more likely to turn up il­le­gal firearms or drugs. Those is­sues were the back­drop to a case Mr. Fen­ton re­counted in which of­fi­cers found an il­le­gal gun un­der the front seat of a car.

The pros­e­cu­tion fell apart be­cause a judge found that an of­fi­cer had in­suf­fi­cient cause to lean through the win­dow and ob­serve the firearm un­der a seat. The­of­fi­cer said one of the men­madeamo­tion to­ward the floor, but the de­fen­dants’ at­tor­neys ar­gued that their clients were re­cip­i­ents of un­equal jus­tice. One said his client’s mo­tion wouldn’t have been con­sid­ered sus­pi­cious in Roland Park. An­other pushed back on the no­tion that the stop took place in a high-crime neigh­bor­hood, which would al­low for more re­laxed rules on stops and searches. The judge sup­pressed the ev­i­dence State’s At­tor­ney Mar­i­lyn Mosby, left, and Po­lice Com­mis­sioner Kevin Davis, an­nounce a new task force to ad­dress gun crimes. and ac­quit­ted the two men.

The DOJ found a per­va­sive distrust for Bal­ti­more po­lice, par­tic­u­larly in the African-Amer­i­can com­mu­nity, as a result of racially bi­ased prac­tices, and an­other case Mr. Fen­ton high­lighted demon­strates how that legacy can un­der­mine prose­cu­tions even when po­lice act within the bounds of the con­sti­tu­tion. Of­fi­cers ex­e­cut­ing a search war­rant on a sus­pected drug dealer, who had a crim­i­nal record that pre­cluded him from legally pos­sess­ing a firearm, found a hand­gun in a shoe box in his closet, Mr. Fen­ton re­ported. But the man’s lawyer suc­cess­fully con­vinced ju­rors that po­lice hadn’t proved that the gun was his — they didn’t test it for fin­ger­prints or DNA, and they didn’t prove that he wore the shoes that came from the box in which po­lice found the gun. It only took an hour of de­lib­er­a­tion for the jury to find him not guilty.

In­creas­ing penal­ties for il­le­gal firearm possession might be use­ful in­so­far as action by the Gen­eral As­sem­bly makes clear to the ju­di­ciary that those crimes are a high pri­or­ity. Mr. Fen­ton found that even those cases that lead to con­vic­tions fre­quently result in just a frac­tion of the pos­si­ble jail time. Elim­i­nat­ing cash bail in Mary­land might help, too, by fo­cus­ing de­ci­sions about pre­trial re­lease squarely on whether a de­fen­dant poses a risk to the com­mu­nity. The rate at which gun crime de­fen­dants are held with­out bail has dropped al­most in half in the last eight years.

But solv­ing the prob­lem of gun vi­o­lence in Bal­ti­more re­quires a sus­tained ef­fort to ad­dress the de­fi­cien­cies the DOJ out­lined. Crit­ics have ar­gued that a fo­cus on re­forms to ad­dress the com­mu­nity’s griev­ances with polic­ing comes at the ex­pense of pub­lic safety. But the rou­tine fail­ure of gun crime cases in Bal­ti­more demon­strates that, on the con­trary, ef­fec­tive polic­ing and con­sti­tu­tional polic­ing must go hand in hand.


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