Inside Comstat: A rare look at how Baltimore Police mine crime data in an effort to fight violence

About 50 of Baltimore's highest-ranking police officers sat in a cramped, windowless room on the third floor of police headquarters and turned their attention to the city's latest crime data — which showed increases across the board.

During this weekly gathering, known as Comstat, top brass pick on commanders to stand before their peers and answer for the latest crime trends in their districts. Recently, it's been more killings, more shootings and more robberies.

"Can we pull up the known drug organizations in that area?" Deputy Police Commissioner Dean Palmere asked, referring to the violent Tri-District, where the South, Southwestern and Western police districts converge.

The map came up covered in little black flags, each representing a known "drug shop." Local residents have been telling police which vacants the dealers are using for business, said Maj. Steve Ward, the Southern District commander.

Now it was a matter of turning the raw intelligence into a targeted response.

"Again, this isn't about casting a net across the city for the purpose of generating numbers," Palmere said, a nod to a common criticism of Comstat and its counterparts in cities across the country: that data-driven policing puts too much emphasis on arrest numbers and not enough on human interactions.

"You're getting tips in from the community about drug dealing, about nefarious activities. We owe it to the community to enforce on the information that they're providing," Palmere said.

He looked around the room. No one disagreed.

"What should we be doing?" Palmere continued. "Locking up the drug dealers in those areas and then debriefing them for information.... We're talking about a whole host of activities connected to the drug trade, from gun violence to robberies to burglaries to auto thefts to overdoses."

Here was the Baltimore Police Department's battle against crime on full view.

Comstat is where police use hard data and predictive modeling to shape deployments and make tactical decisions. But it's also where they talk shop like real cops, discuss raw intelligence about suspects who have yet to be charged, note trends and connections between cases, and openly state what they know — which is a lot — and don't know about the street crime playing out all around them.

It's a place rarely penetrated by outsiders. At last week's meeting, The Baltimore Sun was granted exclusive access.

Throughout, it was clear the people in the room — top brass, the commanders of the city's nine districts, the heads of specialized units, top homicide detectives and so on — all know the realities of crime on the ground in Baltimore.

They've connected the dots in a lot of cases and have intelligence on a vast array of incidents that have never been brought to light publicly and may never result in criminal charges.

And yet, Baltimore is reeling. As of April 29, the most recent date for which comparative data is available, homicides and non-fatal shootings were both up 26 percent. Robberies were up 20 percent, aggravated assaults were up 25 percent, and burglaries were up 14 percent.

The city surpassed 100 homicides on April 24, the fastest pace in two decades.

The spike in homicides first began in 2015 after rioting erupted following the death of Freddie Gray from injuries in police custody — exactly two years prior to the recent Comstat meeting.

Since then, critics of the police department have wondered whether police officers are doing their jobs. Arrests have dropped, and some suspect the decision by Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby to charge six officers in Gray's arrest and death made officers more cautious or reluctant to work. All of the officers were either acquitted or had their charges dropped.

Other critics of the police department, including former police leaders, have suggested that the department has lost its focus on data-driven policing, and therefore its handle on crime. Among them is former acting police commissioner Tony Barksdale, once a behind-the-scenes data guru who ran Comstat with an iron fist.

Barksdale used to have Palmere's job. He used to dress down police commanders who stood at the lectern in Comstat meetings and didn't know their facts. Now, he shouts from a Twitter pulpit that the department isn't doing enough to stem violence and has forgotten the Comstat principles — particularly when it comes to deploying officers to locations of violent crime, or putting "cops on dots."

Barksdale points to recent incidents where violent crimes have occurred back-to-back in the same locations, such as when a 50-year-old man was fatally shot at the same Northwest Baltimore intersection where a 16-year-old boy was fatally shot the night before.

Commissioner Kevin Davis, who is aware of the criticisms, said the approach to crime in the city is "constantly evolving." He said Comstat principles are being applied, just in a different way than when Barksdale was in charge.

"Anytime there is a spike in crime, everyone wonders if we are doing the basics, if we're blocking and tackling," he said. "Sometimes you block and tackle and you still have a tough weekend, or a tough week."

During last week's meeting, Maj. Deron Garrity, the Eastern District commander, talked about a drug crew known as the "Gucci Boys" and recent efforts by his officers to make arrests, interrupt drug markets and hold areas.

"The minute you leave it, they're coming back and they're doing dirt," Garrity told Palmere.

Garrity discussed a man who described himself as a "Bloods bounty hunter." He was shot not long ago and has since been arrested on a gun charge. Garrity expressed concern the man would be back on the street committing crime any minute.

They talked about intel from another district not making it to Garrity in time to prevent another shooting, and how that needed to be rectified. They talked about another recent killing in Garrity's district regarded as an "ambush."

"If you see the video, the victim knows the suspect. There's no doubt about it," Garrity said.

Palmere — the rare Baltimore commander to have survived through multiple commissioners — remembered an old case involving the shooting victim and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. He asked an ATF liaison officer in the room to see if there was any ATF intelligence to use in the homicide investigation.

"Again, it's all about intelligence," Palmere said.

It was clear commanders had plenty of that on hand, even in cases they haven't solved.

One said the recent killing of a woman occurred after she ripped off some drug dealers, who chased her down the street to shoot her. Another man recently killed was a "junkie" turned "stick up boy" who'd crossed the wrong people.

Palmere asked for an update on a group of teenagers believed to be committing bump-and-rob carjackings in the Southern District.

"We haven't gotten the prints back from any of the cars, but it's definitely these four or five juveniles who are terrorizing not only Brooklyn but also Curtis Bay, with burglaries and stolen autos down there," Ward said. He said the teens "know we are looking at them."

"How do they know?" Palmere asked. "Have we tried to make contact with any of these kids?"

Ward said yes, and that two were recently arrested on separate charges.

At one point, Palmere and Davis began questioning Maj. Robert Jackson, the Southwestern commander, about a neighborhood that has seen multiple shootings.

Palmere asked Jackson to outline all recent arrests and officer interactions with local residents in the neighborhood. Jackson did so, noting there have been seven arrests.

"How many of those seven were debriefed?" Palmere asked, using the term for questioning suspects about local crime before taking them to Central Booking.

A sergeant said one individual had been debriefed but hadn't provided any information.

Davis interrupted.

"Now, see, here's the thing on debriefing. If a detective, a real detective, is debriefing any criminal whatsoever, we should rarely hear that nothing came from the debriefing," the commissioner said.

"We're going to keep hounding on this," Palmere said.

Earlier, Davis had conveyed his position on Comstat: He doesn't want his commanders to feel too comfortable at the lectern, but also doesn't want them to come in crippled by anxiety. They should come "ready to learn."

"We want to be in crime prevention, not crime reaction," Palmere said. "In order to do that, we need to get in front of the intelligence — and act on it."

krector@baltsun.com

twitter.com/rectorsun

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
30°