A proposed anti-loitering ordinance aimed at breaking up open-air drug dealing in Annapolis has turned into a polarizing political issue, with some African Americans and civil libertarians contending it could lead to harassment of innocent civilians.
The bill, sponsored by 5th Ward Alderman Herbert McMillan (R), would authorize police to tell people gathered in public areas to disperse if the officers suspect, but cannot prove, that drug-dealing is taking place or is likely to take place. Supporters said the quality of life in public housing developments would be enhanced if the police were given power to tell suspected dealers to move on or face arrest for loitering.
But at a City Council hearing on Monday night, more than two dozen speakers, most of them black, criticized the bill as creating the crime of "loitering while black," and said that its constitutionality is dubious.
The fight in Annapolis is a microcosm of a growing nationwide debate about the role of race in law enforcement. As the nation's crime rate has fallen over the last five years, public attention has turned toward whether police departments use too much force, rely on racial profiling in making traffic stops and are too aggressive in enforcing loitering laws.
This month, a divided Supreme Court overturned a Chicago loitering law that resulted in the arrest of 42,000 people over three years, ruling that the law was too vague. Supporters of the Annapolis bill, which was drafted before the court's ruling in Morales v. Chicago, said that a majority of the court raised no objection to the general concept of anti-loitering laws, but the supporters said they will study the ruling to make sure the language of the Annapolis ordinance is specific enough to pass legal challenge.
As it stands, it would give Annapolis police three criteria for determining whether someone is loitering for the purpose of drug-related activities:
If a person repeatedly engages in conversations with drivers or passengers of vehicles; distributes small objects to people and receives money in return; or engages in "any other pattern of conduct" that police associate with drug activity.
If police have "reliable information" that a person standing in a public area routinely distributes illegal drugs.
If the loiterer has been convicted of drug possession and distribution.
To facilitate enforcement, the proposed ordinance redefines public space to include private property that the public has access to, such as the sidewalks and parking lots of the city's public housing developments. Such areas are currently treated as private property by police because they are technically owned by the city housing authority.
"A lot of residents complain because there is so much loitering and the blatant drug activity that goes with it," said Patricia Croslan, executive director of the Housing Authority of the City of Annapolis, who is black and supports the bill. The Housing Authority operates 10 housing developments with 1,104 units and just less than 3,000 residents, most of them African American.
Antonio Brown, a leader of Neighborhood Watch in the Bywater neighborhood and a supporter of the measure, agreed that the law could be abused. Its enforcement would have to "monitored very carefully," he said. But Brown, who is African American, said action is needed to help police cope with a difficult problem.
"Wherever there are large open-air drug markets, people want to believe that it's only a small percent of people who are involved," Brown said. "The reality is that the number is much larger."
In a city housing complex with 300 residents and a public drug dealing problem, he said, "you could probably only get about 30 people to support doing something about it. The rest aren't participants, but it's their friends who are doing it, or it's somebody in their family who's making money, or it's somebody they know, and so they don't say anything."
But opponents said the proposal is a license to harass.
"There are many documented examples of African Americans being subjected to selective detention or prosecution due to unfettered discretion in the hands of law enforcement officials," Renee Swafford, legal advocacy director of the NAACP, testified at the public hearing.
Dwight Sullivan, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, testified that "as Americans, we have a constitutional right to stand in public places."
"If police have probable cause to believe someone is engaging in a drug offense, they shouldn't shoo that person off into a different corner, they should arrest them," Sullivan said.
Sullivan has called on McMillan to withdraw the bill, which McMillan has said he will not do.
"Maybe this isn't divisive. Maybe it's just a new idea," said McMillan, 41, an American Airlines pilot and self-professed Reagan Republican. "It can be convenient to say something is divisive because then you don't have to think too hard about it. I want people to think about this bill."
The measure will be considered tomorrow by the council's Public Safety Committee. The chair of the committee, Ward 8 Alderman Ellen Moyer, said she wants to hear the results of City Attorney Paul Goetzke's ongoing review of the legal implications of the Supreme Court's Chicago decision before deciding whether to recommend the bill to the entire council for a vote.
Both sides hope some good will come of the sometimes bitter debate, although few are optimistic.
"I'm someone who thinks you have go through the contentiousness to get to consensus," Brown said. "We need to stop tip-toeing around the issue and confront it head on."
"Police-community relations in Annapolis are better now than they have ever been," said Carl Snowden, a former 5th Ward alderman and a critic of the law. "You can see from the public's overwhelming reaction that passing this law would jeopardize that. So why do it?"