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Baltimore’s Gun Offender Registry Is A Misfire

Established to track anyone convicted of a gun-related offense, the registry has proved to be both racist and ineffective in reducing gun violence.

An aerial view of the Baltimore City skyline
Photo Illustration by Anagraph/Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty

Baltimore’s Gun Offender Registry Is A Misfire

Established to track anyone convicted of a gun-related offense, the registry has proved to be both racist and ineffective in reducing gun violence.

In October 2007, then Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon established a gun offender registry to help combat violence. “I want to make Baltimore the toughest place in the country on gun crimes,” Dixon said when the registry was signed into law.

But over a decade after it was created, the registry has proved to be ineffective in reducing gun violence, extremely punitive, racist, and perhaps even unconstitutional.

The Baltimore registry was modeled on a similar database created by New York City in 2006, the first in the country. It works like this: Anyone convicted of at least one gun-related offense—including nonviolent misdemeanors—in Baltimore’s Circuit or District Court is required to register their name and address with the city’s police department. Then, they must check in with the police every six months for three years and update the required information as needed.  

Those sentenced to prison on a gun-related offense have 48 hours upon release to register. Failure to comply with these conditions can result in arrest and prosecution, with possible punishment of a year in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.

Notifications about gun offenders are made to community leaders and to police districts. The registry is also accessible to the public on Baltimore’s Open Data website, displaying the name, address and date of birth of the registrant.

In 2012, when I was a patrol officer in the Baltimore Police Department’s Northern District, I was provided with a list of names and addresses of registrants who resided on my patrol post. My sergeant instructed me to verify a registrant’s place of residence and document the results in writing. The results were then forwarded to the Gun Offender Monitoring Unit. If I located the individual on the list, I noted the address was current. If I received no answer or someone at the residence told me the individual didn’t live there, a detective from the monitoring unit would then attempt to locate the person. If the registered individual could not be located, the detective would then write an arrest warrant for failure to comply, which is a misdemeanor. Because the punishment can be up to a year in jail, a jury trial could be requested.  The registry was also used to elicit information about violent crimes like armed robberies, nonfatal shootings and homicides. I performed “knock and talks” to question registrants about such crimes, but I never obtained any useful information.

In April 2011, Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Alfred Nance ruled that the gun offender registry was “unconstitutionally vague and awfully broad” when he dismissed criminal charges of “failure to register” against Adrian Phillips. In June 2010, Phillips was hit with this charge after detectives stated that his address could not be verified and that he failed to report to the gun offender monitoring unit office. Phillips insisted that he was unable to go to the office because of an injury and that he was living with his grandmother, and provided her address. When police couldn’t find him there, Phillips was charged with failure to register. His attorney argued that the registry creates “sentencing enhancements on a state law that punishes people who live in the City.”

In March 2013, however, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals upheld the constitutionality of the registry. There have been similar constitutional challenges to gun registries in New York and Chicago, but courts there have also ruled in their favor.

But some cities are rejecting gun offender registries. In November 2017, the City Council in Wilmington, Delaware, voted against creating a registry. “Our streets are saturated with these lethal firearms,” said Council Member Nnamdi Chukwuocha. But the gun registry, he said, would simply put “more punitive measures in place for individuals who need support.”

In Baltimore, meanwhile, there are growing concerns about that African Americans are disproportionately represented on the registry.  Baltimore’s population is 63 percent African American yet African Americans comprise approximately 96 percent of the registry.

The registry also has not been an effective tool in reducing violence in Baltimore. According to recently released statistics from the FBI, Baltimore had the nation’s second-highest murder rate in 2017 for cities with populations greater than 100,000. (For much of 2018 it appeared that murder could be in decline in Baltimore, but a recent spike in killings may change that.) A study of Baltimore homicides in 2017 revealed that 88 percent of the victims had been killed by a firearm.

Gun registries are reflective of gun control measures generally which have racially disparate outcomes. According to one Department of Justice study, weapons arrest rates are five times greater for African Americans than for whites. And gun arrests were at the heart of the Baltimore Police’s corrupt and federally indicted Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF); indeed, in August GTTF victim Devon Harrod filed a civil rights lawsuit against the department for a 2015 incident in which officers from the unit planted a gun near him and then coerced him into falsely confessing that the weapon was his. “Many of the already existing instances of racial profiling and overpolicing that contribute to mass incarceration come from gun control measures,” Alex Gourevitch, a professor of political science at Brown University, said in 2015. “If we really care about the condition of people living in poor Black communities, the issue isn’t just the destruction of physical lives but how low the quality of life is. The best thing would be to reduce the number of things we call crimes and instead look to things like social and economic policy.”

Suit Filed by Strip Club Workers in Columbus Sheds Light on Troubled Vice Squad

The women, who were arrested alongside Stormy Daniels in July, allege that they were smeared by arresting officers, but they’re just the latest to raise concerns.

An activist confronting a Columbus police officer outside the governor's mansion in Bexley, Ohio, a Columbus suburb, in April 2017.
Katie Forbes

Suit Filed by Strip Club Workers in Columbus Sheds Light on Troubled Vice Squad

The women, who were arrested alongside Stormy Daniels in July, allege that they were smeared by arresting officers, but they’re just the latest to raise concerns.

At the Sirens strip club in Columbus one night in July, a new lawsuit alleges, members of the Columbus Division of Police vice squad paid $75 each for “V.I.P. access” to adult entertainer Stormy Daniels. As the undercover officers downed $129 in alcoholic drinks, they commented on the bodies of their cocktail servers: “You have the tits,” one officer said to a cocktail waitress, “and she has the ass.”

The vice officers then made their way to the V.I.P. area for Daniels’s performance. Later, one would claim Daniels “put both hands on officers [sic] buttocks, both hands on officers [sic] breast, then put her breast in officers [sic] face” as cause for arresting her, along with two other women working at the club. While one of the officers sent around an email announcing they had Daniels in jail, the suit continues, another was busy shutting down his alleged pseudonymous Facebook account, deleting posts like “Cops for Trump Pence Make America Great Again.”

These allegations appear in a civil rights lawsuit filed this week against officers in the Columbus Division of Police (CPD) vice squad. In the suit, two women arrested that night at Sirens say officers falsified evidence and misled the public about the women’s alleged involvement in prostitution and human trafficking. The vice squad raid on Sirens was widely considered political payback for Daniels’s allegations that she had an affair with President Trump and was paid to cover it up.

Miranda Panda, a cocktail waitress, and Brittany Walters, a dancer, brought the suit against CPD vice officers. They say officers Shana Keckley, Whitney Lancaster, Mary Praither, Steven Rosser, along with one other unknown officer, arrested them without probable cause, an argument later supported by the city attorney, who said officers failed to allege necessary facts about the women’s conduct. After the arrests, their suit says, CPD “falsely insinuated” to the media that Panda and Walters were involved in “prostitution, human trafficking, or vice related violations.”

The suit comes at a critical time for the department. Since Sept. 6, vice unit operations have been put on “pause” as the department launched an internal review. Three weeks later, the department called in an FBI public corruption task force to investigate the unit, noting that “recent high profile incidents have brought forward a variety of allegations,” including Daniels’s arrest and the shooting of sex worker Donna Dalton by Officer Andrew Mitchell in August. At the time he shot and killed Dalton, Mitchell was under criminal investigation. He had also already made 80 prostitution-related arrests in 2018, overwhelmingly of women.

Columbus Police spokesperson Denise Alex-Bouzounis told The Appeal that the FBI investigation led the department to relieve Mitchell of duty, confiscating his badge and gun. FBI spokesperson Todd Lindgren confirmed to The Appeal that CPD has referred the investigation to them, but would not offer further information because “the matter is ongoing.”

The officers’ plans to target Sirens and Daniels, the suit claims, are evidenced in part by pro-Trump Facebook posts allegedly written by Officer Rosser, since deleted. (Rosser, in a previous incident, was found to have entrapped employees of a Columbus bar into serving alcohol to minors.) The suit cites internal emails, including a celebratory email from Officer Keckley, who forwarded the complaints related to the three arrests to a CPD lieutenant, with the comment “LT You’re Welcome!!!!! I work Vice now !! : D It was Me, Rosser, Lancaster, and Praiter [sic]; Please Please Don’t post my name on Face Book [sic] !! : D Thank me in person later.”

The women also allege that officers falsified their arrest reports so they could be charged with violating a law against touching strip club patrons while nude or seminude. Officer Keckley reported in a criminal complaint that Panda was nude or seminude, but in the suit, Panda says she wore “a large bra, which covered all of her nipples and most of her breasts; underwear; leggings; and a high-waisted skirt.” Officer Praither, the suit states, misrepresented her conduct with Walters, who was dancing when Praither reported Walters put her face between the officer’s breasts, because “it would have been physically impossible for Ms. Walters to bend down far enough” from the stage.

The women say in the suit that they were publicly shamed after CPD told the media that the arrests at Sirens were because of prostitution and human trafficking. Someone wrote “whore” on Panda’s door, and Walters was outed to her family, who did not know she was a dancer until news reports.

An FBI spokesperson would not comment on whether they were investigating these arrests, which dancers say have had a lasting impact on their lives. Alyson, a dancer who has worked at the club, told The Appeal that since the arrests, some dancers have left the club for fear of getting police citations. “You don’t know what you could get cited for, so it just kind of makes everyone nervous.”

The new allegations against the vice unit didn’t surprise Tynan Krakoff, a lead organizer with Showing Up for Racial Justice Columbus. Krakoff said the lawsuit is “part of a larger pattern of police abuse and corruption,” noting that there were roughly two dozen active lawsuits as of late 2017 against CPD. “It’s not about individual ‘bad apples,’” Krakoff said.

Such incidents—the shooting of Donna Dalton, the arrests at Sirens—“have rightfully drawn scrutiny to our vice section,” Deputy Chief Timothy Becker said on Sept. 6 during the announcement of the internal review. Vice officers, he went on, investigate “salacious activities that are relatively minor in terms of criminal penalties, yet very cancerous to our communities,” which require officers who have made “good choices” to “associate with individuals who are making poor decisions.” Yet after the arrests at Sirens, Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein instructed police to cease such undercover enforcement of the “no touching” law. In the case of Daniels, Panda, and Walters, all charges were dropped.

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One Year After Cook County’s Bail Reform, Court Watchers Say Things Are Getting Worse

Judges are still setting bail at unaffordable levels, and more people are being held without bond.

Cook County Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans, right, with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and former Illinois Governor Pat Quinn
Scott Olson/Getty Images

One Year After Cook County’s Bail Reform, Court Watchers Say Things Are Getting Worse

Judges are still setting bail at unaffordable levels, and more people are being held without bond.

Chicago and its surrounding county was supposed to be a beacon of bail reform. After Cook County Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans imposed new rules and made sweeping changes to the bench, advocates hoped that virtually no one would be jailed because they didn’t have the money to make bail. But a new report has exposed that a change on paper doesn’t always result in a change in poor defendants’ lives.

In July 2017, Evans issued an administrative order that told judges that they have to consider whether people can afford bail before they set it.

The Chicago Community Bond Fund started court watching shortly after Evans’s ruling to track whether the public promise would make a difference in the courtroom. At first, it seemed to have the intended effect: In the first month after the order, the number of people who had to post money bonds dropped by more than half, while the number of people who were released on their own recognizance—allowed to leave upon promising to return for trial—doubled. Bail amounts also decreased, as did the number of people in jail.

Any lag in progress was chalked up to an adjustment period, organizers said. Advocates were told, “Oh, we’re still adjusting,” recounted Sharlyn Grace, co-executive director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund. “This is new, so don’t expect it to be perfect yet.”

But a year later, her group found that not only are judges still setting bail amounts that defendants can’t afford—meaning that more than 2,700 people are in Cook County Jail because they don’t have enough money—but that things are getting worse. The initial gains “have steadily evaporated and bond court outcomes are now approaching pre-Order levels,” the report states. The authors note that if judges were sticking to the order, there would be no bail amounts set at levels that defendants can’t afford; instead, it says, nearly 30 percent of bail amounts were unaffordable. Between November 2017 and June 2018, judges set unaffordable bail amounts for more than 1,350 people.  

In an emailed statement, Pat Milhizer, director of communications for the chief judge, agreed that there are about 2,700 people being held in jail because they can’t afford bail but pointed out that 87 percent had a current violent or weapons-related charge, a risk assessment recommending “maximum conditions” if released, an assessment flagging them for violence, and/or an active probation or parole case.

There should also be less need for the bond fund’s services if the order was working, but the report notes that the group hasn’t seen a decrease in requests: 877 people asked for help paying a bond they couldn’t afford since the order went into effect. The average bail amount from those callers is still over $80,000.

The report also states that instead of allowing most people to go free before their trials, the rate at which people were denied bond increased over the same time period, sending 522 people to jail without the possibility of getting out on bail. It has meant that while the number of people incarcerated because they couldn’t afford bail decreased, the number of people incarcerated without the possibility of bailing themselves out increased by the same amount, keeping the jail population steady throughout this year. The report also notes that the racial makeup of people jailed because of bail hasn’t changed since the order went into effect.

The findings indicate that bail practices are deeply entrenched in the court. Judge Evans replaced all six judges who oversee bond court last September with ones expected to stick to his order. Although many of those new judges at first released more people on their own recognizance, the progress has slipped. Judge Sophia Atcherson at first set the highest rate of I-bonds, which allow people to leave without paying anything, in the month after the order. And yet she has set unaffordable bail amounts for 16 percent of people since then, and the rate is getting worse, more than tripling since late 2017. Court watchers observed the same patterns for the five other judges.

“We would claim a small victory in that certainly these judges are making fairer decisions, decisions that honor the presumption of innocence much more than judges previously,” Grace said. Still, the report notes, “Decreasing commitment to the constitutional requirements embodied in [Evans’s order] is a constant across all judges.”

In a press release marking the first anniversary of Evans’s order, his office pointed to a reduction in the jail population and an increase in the number of people being released before their trials, including 78 percent of people accused of felonies, up from 59 percent before the order.

“This is what evolution looks like in the administration of justice,” Evans said in the release. “We are striking a balance between protecting the public and protecting the rights of the accused, who are presumed innocent.”

One problem, Grace said, is that the judges are still incentivized to rely on bail. They are elected officials, and “the public pressure not to release people, and the real and imagined risk of releasing someone, which we know is very low, looms large in the imaginations of judges,” Grace said. The judges adhering most closely to the order “were out on a limb. They were the ones who were vulnerable even though they were making the decisions that the law requires,” she said, as they face potentially losing their seats over public outrage if someone is released and then commits another crime. But “they’ve moved closer to the other judges rather than the other judges getting braver.”

Meaningful reform simply won’t happen until cash bail is off the table altogether, Grace said. “The whole idea of affordable money bond doesn’t really work. What we need to do is eliminate secured money bond, because it’s ineffective,” she said. “We need to actually take away the power that judges have to use this tool. …  Otherwise it’s continuing to be used as a crutch in a system that’s broken and has all the wrong incentives.”

The lack of progress also brings into question who is policing judges. “There’s this underlying question of judicial accountability and who actually makes judges follow the law,” Grace said. Judges were already required by state law to determine a defendant’s ability to pay, but simply weren’t doing it.  Evans’s order itself is unprecedented and it’s unclear if the chief judge has the power to enforce it. The Chicago Community Bond Fund is now stepping up to the plate, looking at options to appeal bail decisions and support policies in the public defender’s office that could help clients get released.

“One of the most important lessons and takeaways is the need for ongoing monitoring,” Grace said. “This just points to the ongoing need for grassroots accountability measures.” One new tactic her group is exploring is having court watchers make themselves more visible in the courtroom. Up until now, they have tried to blend in, only interested in collecting data and not influencing the proceedings. But they might switch to signaling to judges that they are being watched.

Her group is also pushing for a state Supreme Court rule against the use of money bail, which would be statewide, more permanent, and most likely carry more weight than Evans’s order.

“Many people in the criminal justice system have the attitude that, ‘Well, it’s so much better than it was,’ that we’ve gone far enough,” Grace said. “We are very much continuing to focus on the fact that there are still thousands of people in Cook County Jail … today because they cannot afford to pay a money bond.”

“We don’t let the system tell us when it’s succeeded without an external check from the actual people being impacted and their allies,” she added.

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