The number of Baltimore Police Department arrests lacking in “probable cause,” or a legally sound and properly documented reason to arrest someone, has dropped significantly in recent years, a recently released independent audit found.

The findings came from the latest assessment by the Police Department’s independent monitoring team, part of its federal consent decree that dates back to 2017. The report, focused on arrests lacking probable cause, found that the rate of improper arrests dropped from 10.4% to 4% in two random samplings of 200 cases in 2019 and 2021. It attributed the difference to the department’s revised policies and training procedures, which went into effect in between the two samplings.

A closer look at the improper arrests found that when the arrests did lack probable cause, they appeared to be “due to unintentional errors, rather than as part of a broader strategy to make arrests, even if unsupported by probable cause, as a means of reducing crime,” the report said.

The independent assessment adds weight to the argument made frequently by city leaders such as Mayor Brandon Scott and Police Commissioner Richard Worley: that the reductions in fatal and nonfatal shootings have come as police officers have moved beyond the “zero tolerance” strategies of the past, which included “clearing corners” and arresting swaths of people without proper cause.

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It also represents a bright spot in the Police Department’s efforts to come into compliance with the consent decree, enacted in the wake of a 2015 U.S. Department of Justice investigation into policing practices that was spurred by the death of Freddie Gray, who died from injuries sustained while in police custody.

In other areas of the consent decree, much work remains to be done. The report noted that its examination of improper arrests fell under the larger category relating to all stops, searches and arrests.

The Police Department has had a history of not properly documenting those activities, and it has lagged in producing data on stops and searches — a delay it attributes to issues with a private vendor overseeing its electronic records system used to capture the data.

“The department has made changes to its policies to include such documentation, but its work implementing those changes is still in process,” the report said.

Importantly, the report found that the Police Department’s internal audits were in compliance with the consent decree, disagreeing with the BPD reviewers in only two of 20 cases it sampled, and describing the two cases as “close calls.”

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The sampling of arrests by the monitoring team revealed that the bulk of the improper arrests are made by patrol officers: 55% in 2019 and 73.5% in 2021. Members of specialized “District Action Teams,” tasked with making arrests “proactively” as opposed to primarily responding to calls, made up 10% of the improper arrests in 2019 and 9% in 2021.

Compared to 2019, a lesser percentage of the improper arrests stemmed from traffic and “investigative” stops, and more of them stemmed from calls for service. Those who were improperly arrested were found in the samplings to be disproportionately Black, making up 84% of the cases in both 2019 and 2021. July 2021 U.S. Census estimates showed the city’s population was about 62.3% Black.

The improper arrests also skewed younger. About half of the arrestees were below the age of 30 in the two random samplings from 2019 and 2021. A separate review of all arrests that were promptly dropped without charges by prosecutors found that about 75% of those cases, some 16 in total, were for people under the age of 30.

The report comes at a somewhat uncertain time for the Baltimore Police Department’s quest to come into compliance with its federal consent decree. Deputy Commissioner Eric Melancon, who oversaw the department’s compliance efforts for former Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, left the agency in recent months to return home to New Orleans.

But the Police Department has some time to restructure before its next update to the public. About two weeks before Melancon announced his decision, U.S. Judge James Bredar, who oversees the decree, canceled its October quarterly public hearing, citing his trial schedule and his finding that “there will be adequate oversight of the consent decree through the remaining monthly meetings and the quarterly public hearing scheduled for January 25, 2024.”

Ben Conarck is a criminal justice reporter focusing on law enforcement for The Baltimore Banner. Previously, he covered healthcare and investigations for the Miami Herald and criminal justice for the Florida Times-Union. 

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