Friday, May 23, 2008

NAACP calls for hearings into deadly force by police

Baltimore department has grown more aggressive, group claims

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The NAACP Maryland State Conference has asked for congressional and state officials to hold hearings regarding allegations of police use of excessive force resulting in deaths.

On Wednesday, the state NAACP sent a letter to U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D) of Pikesville and U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Dist. 7) of Baltimore requesting a congressional hearing on excessive force.

They also want Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, police, law enforcement personnel and elected officials to convene a task force to look at instances of excessive force over the last 10 years. NAACP leaders want the group to examine the race, age and circumstance of each occurrence.

‘‘Summertime is coming, and we’re concerned about the deadly force that’s been used,” said Gerald Stansbury, president of the state conference. ‘‘We just want someone independent of the police to look at this, to see if there’s something in the training.”

In the letter, Stansbury wrote: ‘‘We demand that the American criminal justice system live up to its Constitutional obligations to serve and protect all Americans with dignity and fairness irrespective of race, ethnicity, gender, religious faith and other differences. Violence and intimidation is not acceptable, it is against the law and must end now.”

Baltimore City Police shot 33 people last year, compared to 15 in 2006, said Marvin L. Cheatham Sr., president of the Baltimore City chapter of the NAACP.

The police department’s attitude has gotten more aggressive, he said.

‘‘We have a tremendous number of good police men and police women in Baltimore city,” Cheatham said. ‘‘The majority are doing outstanding work. But unfortunately, there’s too many not doing that work, and because of the relationship they have with each other they don’t rat on each other. It’s hard to get the community to work with the police when incidents like this happen.”

Baltimore City Police do take allegations seriously, said Sterling Clifford, public affairs director for the police department.

Complaints against officers dropped 13 percent in 2007, and this year they are down an additional 11 percent, Clifford said.

‘‘The department is committed to keeping those numbers moving down,” he said.

Every police-involved shooting is investigated by both the Internal Affairs Division and the Homicide Division, he said.

‘‘The officers in this department have been aggressively targeting violent criminals, and that’s led to more shootings,” Clifford said.

The NAACP is pushing for the task force following incidents involving black males in Baltimore city, Frederick and Howard counties, but the group wants to examine excessive force against all minorities, Stansbury said.

‘‘It needs to be addressed across the board,” Stansbury said. ‘‘We need to put more value on human life. It makes me wonder, is it ‘shoot first and ask questions later?’”

The NAACP wants the task force to convene right away, Stansbury said. ‘‘We feel like now is the time,” he said. ‘‘We need to take this seriously.”

A spokesman for Cummings’ office said the office forwarded the letter to House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) to discuss the possibility of a hearing.

‘‘While we haven’t received the letter, we’d be happy to sit down and discuss the issue,” said Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for Gansler.

A state legislator said complaints of excessive force are common.

‘‘The question is, ‘What is it, and when is it appropriate and when is it not?’” said Sen. Lisa A. Gladden (D-Dist. 41) of Baltimore city, a practicing public defender. During her time as a lawyer, Gladden said she has heard several complaints of excessive force used by police officers.

‘‘Just yesterday, someone said it to me,” she said. ‘‘We need to train police officers in what’s effective in policing. Any place where people have been charged with a crime and there’s a police officer, you’re going to have some complaint of excessive force.”