The Baltimore Sun reported Saturday that police in Charm City have for years followed an unofficial policy of picking up people on minor drug charges and offering to let them go if they turn in a weapon. The dropping of charges in exchange for weapons is neither legal nor enforceable, according to experts cited by the Sun. And it isn't right, according to some Baltimore residents.
"That's kidnapping and holding for ransom," said Sheila Harding, a 59-year-old South Baltimore resident whose handcuffed stepson appeared on her porch one day pleading for her to give accompanying police officers a weapon so he would not be arrested. "And because they have a badge and a gun, they're allowed to get away with it."
Although the practice is not sanctioned by law, it has been going on for years, the Sun reported, citing interviews with police and prosecutors and court documents. The practice is so typical one lieutenant recently declared it a regular procedure and some officers have created forms to complete when doing such exchanges.
Police officials argued that the practice effectively removed guns from the streets and was an exercise in police discretion. But discretion ends with an arrest, which should not be able to be waved away in some informal deal, said critics. "How is that justice?" asked Cheryl Jacobs, the chief prosecutor of the city state's attorney's narcotic division. "That's not the way our system of justice is set up to work... It's laudable to get guns off the street, but this is not the way we go about it," she told the Sun.
Told of the practice, Mayor Martin O'Malley says he had heard about it previously, but it now appears to be more common than he knew. "It's certainly something we can look at," says O'Malley, a former prosecutor, "and certainly something the police commissioner should look at."
"If it's an ends-justifies-a-means thing, that's problematic," Eugene O'Donnell, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former New York police officer and prosecutor told the Sun. "That's not our legal system. The means matter in our legal system."
The "policy" is under review by the city and the department, the Sun reported. Police Commissioner Kevin Clark banned the use of the unofficial gun-trade forms in May, but did not explicitly ban the practice, so it continued. In September, after the Sun began inquiries and department leaders discussed the issue, police said the practice has almost entirely ceased and the department will soon implement an official policy toward "gun flipping."