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
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.