Questions loom over how Baltimore Police officers will carry out a new enforcement initiative for low-level offenses, and whether the city could run afoul of a federal consent decree because of it.

During a Tuesday night budget hearing, City Council President Nick Mosby questioned Police Commissioner Michael Harrison over whether resuming enforcement of two-dozen lesser, nonviolent offenses could backfire. Using the example of loitering, Mosby cautioned that officers were barred under the consent decree from stopping and questioning people over activity that is not necessarily criminal.

The plan to restart policing of quality-of-life crimes including aggressive panhandling, disorderly conduct and drug possession was unveiled by State’s Attorney Ivan Bates last week. Bates made rescinding a policy from his predecessor, Marilyn Mosby, not to prosecute these types of offenses a centerpiece of his successful fall campaign. He faced similar questions over the plan during a Monday budget hearing.

Given the ambiguity of low-level enforcement, which is often discretionary, Nick Mosby said he worried about the potential of major incidents escalating out of minor infractions.

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“Lot of new officers, new policy, middle of the summer where things start to heat up,” Mosby said. “I just want to make sure we don’t have an incident that takes us back from all the hard work we’ve had over the years to build trust with our communities.”

The city council president is married to Marilyn Mosby, the city’s former top prosecutor.

Later in the budget hearing, Harrison brought up the citation effort again when responding to concerns about open-air drug markets.

The department was still taking down large drug operations, Harrison said, though they could be taking down more. To that end, Harrison said that the enforcement initiative would once again allow officers to make arrest for simple possession, which would enable the department to “build bigger and better cases.”

“We’ll be issuing citations for those caught with small amounts of contraband,” Harrison said. “In some cases, we’ll be making arrests for those individuals.”

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Police Commissioner Michael Harrison is shown at a March 20, 2023 news conference.

City council members also quizzed department brass about the monitoring team for the consent decree in the wake of reporting that courthouse relationships had grown more intertwined with city government, while community input on the process remains sparse.

City Councilman Zeke Cohen referred to the article as “blistering” and cited concerns about community involvement that he, too, encounters with his constituents.

“The challenge is that if the public still doesn’t appreciate, understand the consent decree and what it has done for the department, I think it’s hard for the reforms to have a lasting impact,” Cohen said. “Some of that is on the monitoring team. Some of that is on communication. What are we doing to ensure that public understands?”

Harrison responded that the monitoring team, the U.S. Department of Justice and the city police department have held nearly 200 meetings with the public on the consent decree, though he conceded that the meetings are not always well attended. He also cited reductions in complaints about excessive force as evidence of improved community relations.

Police department officials also said they would gather a better accounting of the cost of the decree.

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The city is likely years away from exiting the consent decree, as major technological advances are still needed at the department, including an early intervention system that would alert supervisors to problematic officers. That technology is still out to bid.

bconarck@thebaltimorebanner.com

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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