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C. Fraser Smith: How zero tolerance became the rule in Baltimore

Baltimore’s discredited zero tolerance arrest policy of the 1980’s draws justified condemnation, but critics forget an important factor:

Neighborhood leaders and clergy, not to speak of residents, wanted it.

They had zero tolerance for crime. Why should police tolerate it?

After a while, people get desperate. Crime threatens life, of course, particularly when you’re in the middle of it. Even if you survive, the quality of your life falls.

Families and businesses become collateral damage in the failed drug war. They were, and they still are.

Zero tolerance offered some relief — enough to ignore the impact on blameless young people – if that devastating result was even considered at the time.

Zero tolerance became another hammer blow for communities looking for some way to escape the violence and disruption of the drug trade and its inevitable violence.

It made sense for some. Arresting loiterers seems extreme looking back. At the time, people said “Hanging around can’t be good. One thing leads to another. If you’re not doing something bad at the moment, you will be in time.”

Zero tolerance promised be a kind of inoculation. Get the potential bad guys off the street and life will be good.

Democratic presidential candidate and former Mayor Martin O’Malley reacted to those concerns. He gave people what some wanted.

He dismisses zero tolerance critics.

I have never heard anyone complain about having too many police in their neighborhood, he says, in words to that effect. He’s gone on to say his policies made important advances against crime on the streets of the city.

Not so, say others. The question now, though, is this: Was zero tolerance effective enough to justify the life-ruining effect on blameless young people? More than 100,000 were arrested in the zero tolerance heyday.

The question is all the more germane given how many loitering and nuisances charges were never pursued by prosecutors or the courts.

Zero tolerance made the nationwide over-incarceration of black Baltimoreans even more devastating. Once on someone’s record, these arrests for loitering and other minor offenses became a series of closed doors — particularly when it came to finding jobs.

Arguing that very point among others, the American Civil Liberties Union won an $870,000 settlement from the city.

More recently, the policy has been discussed in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death. State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby says police did not have probable cause to arrest him – a charge that resonates against the background of over-zealous, zero tolerance arresting.

Seems like a good time to get our signals straight. Weeks before Gray was arrested, Mosby had called for more arresting. Then, after his death, she indicted the arresting officers on an array of charges – some of which have already been challenged by defense lawyers.

In the interest of clarity, Maryland’s attorney general last week issued a reminder to police on racial profiling.

“Rules and policies predicated on the discredited claim that certain groups commit crimes at higher rates … have been widely rejected,” he said in a  “guidance memorandum.” He plans training sessions to be sure everyone knows the rules.

Referring to cases similar to Gray’s, he said, “These tragic events have recently come to define the relationship between communities and police. That should not be,” Frosh writes.

Too many African American citizens are stopped, pulled over or suspected simply because they are black.

The practice has a led to a not-so-funny set of charges: “Driving while black…” Or “standing around while black.” Or “showing up in the wrong neighborhood while black.”

We need zero tolerance for that sort of policing.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His email address is