Anatomy of a car stop: Baltimore police explain their position to city council public safety committee

City Paper

More Baltimore police should handcuff suspects temporarily for the officers’ safety. Police can park a suspect’s car to save them the towing and impoundment fees. Any time a police officer talks to a citizen he or she is supposed to give them an official form.

And regarding several instances of alleged abuse of citizens by police, they would like to have more information so they can investigate.

All this is according to the Baltimore City police command staff, 10 members of which attended a City Council committee hearing last week. Postponed from last month, the Oct. 21 hearing of the council’s Public Safety Committee was titled “The Anatomy of a Car Stop and The Anatomy of a Car Tow and The Rights of a Citizen in the Event of an Arrest.”

The hearing, which was planned months ago, came amid troubled times for the department in the wake of a Baltimore Sun investigation of civil cases filed against officers. The payouts are substantial, and The Sun found several officers with multiple settlements paid by taxpayers on their behalf to people who claimed injuries. The U.S. Department of Justice pledged to investigate, and Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said he welcomed the scrutiny.

Batts brought nine high-level department officials to the council hearing. Only three or four spoke, mainly to give a just-so recounting of the department’s official policies and procedures for traffic stops and on-the-street interviews with pedestrians. After that, the questions mounted.

Paul Banach, the department’s recently hired director of training and professional development, held the podium the longest. He explained the concept of reasonable suspicion, as when a patrol officer gets word of a recent car-jacking or a robbery committed with a blue Ford Focus.

“You could be stopped if your blue Focus looks like that car,” Banach told the committee, which is chaired by Councilman Warren Branch of the 13th District. Banach went into detail about how the officer is supposed to approach the vehicle for maximum safety of himself, the occupants of the car, and the public in general, stressing again and again that police do not know that you, the driver they just stopped, are a solid citizen with no criminal past or intent. “Timothy McVeigh [the Oklahoma City bomber] got stopped for driving without a registration plate,” Banach said.

He recommended that drivers stopped by police roll their window down to indicate that they have nothing to hide.

Councilman Robert Curran (3rd District) asked about towing. The police said it wasn’t always necessary.

When arresting someone for drunk driving or another reason the police officer has discretion, one of the command staff said. He can have the car towed but the department’s training is to get permission from the driver to park the car somewhere safe and legal so the cost of impoundment is avoided.

Banach said that when police stop a vehicle and find the occupants aren’t the suspected criminals they’re looking for, “we expect that they will explain to the person in the car why they were stopped and issue them a stop receipt and submit that receipt at the end of the night.”

Curran asked if these Citizen Contact Forms are given every time.

“That is what we train,” Banach replied, “and that is what we expect.”

He said officers get more than 1,000 hours of training about how to do their jobs within the parameters allowed by Constitution of the United States.

Councilman Brandon M. Scott (2nd District) asked what the department does about officers who fail to follow this training repeatedly, as when the same innocent individual is “stopped by the same officer in the same situation.”

That is a “delicate situation,” Deputy Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez said. “We don’t want them to terrorize the citizens.” Rodriguez, who oversees the department’s internal affairs division, said he has teams under his command to monitor such officers. “We did it today, we did it yesterday, and we’ll do it tomorrow,” he said. “And the word is getting out.”

He says his division now swiftly disciplines “frequent fliers,” meaning cops who draw multiple credible complaints.

Councilman Eric Costello, appointed this month to the 11th District seat formerly held by William Cole, asked how long a cop could hold a person, handcuffed by the roadside, in temporary detention.

There is no set time limit, Banach said, because circumstances always differ. The practice is for the officer’s safety, he said. “More police officers should conduct them but they don’t.”

Branch said that he and his City Council aid saw a man handcuffed near Patterson Park one spring Sunday morning. “Supposedly someone did a robbery,” Branch said. The officer was poking the man’s chest. The man was later set free, Branch told the police.

He recounted other incidents, including one in which a young man was stopped by police who asked him where he lived. The man told them, and the cops then went into the house and searched the refrigerator. “I did not see a search warrant,” Branch said.

Branch asked what the department does in these circumstances.

“We don’t train that,” Banach replied. “We expect constitutional policing.”

“The incidents you’re referring to I’m not familiar with,” Rodriguez added. “I would like more information about that.”

After the hearing, Branch said he had brought both of these incidents to the attention of police commanders months ago. In the incident he witnessed, Branch said, the area commander, Lt. Colonel Dan Lioi, actually came to the scene and promised to get back to the councilman, Branch said.

And here is where the enormity of Commissioner Batts’ task comes clear.

 Batts promoted Lioi in July 2013 as part of a department shake-up designed to improve the then-burgeoning murder rate. Lioi and two other “up-and-coming” commanders were given increased responsibilities. Lioi oversaw the Eastern, Northeastern, and Northern police districts, Clifton McWhite oversaw Western, Northwestern, and Southwestern, and Melissa Hyatt oversaw the others, including the Central and Waterfront districts.

Since then, two of the three have left the department and have been charged with crimes. Lioi currently faces assault charges in Harford County related to a dispute with his wife. When Harford County deputies seized five guns from Lioi’s residence, they found that one had previously been held by Baltimore City police as evidence. There has been no public explanation of how the gun got to Lioi’s house or how the Baltimore Police evidence control section lost it. The incident is allegedly under investigation. 

Last week McWhite was charged with theft because he allegedly claimed academic credentials he had not earned, which got him a pay bump. He had resigned abruptly in April after 19 years on the job. His lawyer told the Sun that he is a victim, as he did not realize his credentials came from a diploma mill.

At the hearing several citizens spoke. Duane “Shorty” Davis, who has been videotaping police stops and protesting regularly for several years since he was jailed in Baltimore County for placing a toilet near the courthouse as an act of political protest, spoke first.

“I’ve been stopped on stop and frisk on numerous occasions,” he said. Police regularly go through his cameras, he said, and take his property. “You’re locked up for 30 days so you can’t get it back,” Davis said. “I’ve been to numerous meetings. You don’t want to talk to us. The Justice Department is coming now and you’ll have to turn the records over to the Justice Department.”

Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, asked the council to help change the law that lets police keep property not claimed within a month. Recently a man with mental illness that Hill-Aston says she helped to get housing was arrested—“he didn’t do anything,” she said, “he has a mental illness”—and could not make bail. He spent 30 days in jail, is about to be evicted from his housing, and will lose his car, which the city towed. People have only 30 days to redeem their property, Hill-Aston said. “If they get out on the 30th day they ought to at least be able to get their things,” she said.

Attorney J. Wyndal Gordon, watching from the gallery, advised everyone to turn on the voice memo recorder on their smartphone the minute they see the blue lights behind them. “It’s beautiful,” he said. “Hit that audio button. You don’t even have to tell police that it’s on.”

“This is a war on bad officers,” Gordon said. “It’s time to stop allowing the bad officers to hide behind good officers.”

Tyrone Powers, a former FBI agent who more recently has been known for blurbing a book by a notorious gang member, addressed the police. “The policies are good,” he told them. “It’s always been the enforcement.”

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