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In 'war room,' city police, feds work together to try to stop Baltimore violence

In the 'war room,' police and federal agents are collaborating to try to remedy Baltimore's homicide spike.

At the head of Baltimore's "war room," Lt. Col. Sean Miller runs down a daily roll call of city police and federal agents, who give updates on phones being tapped, a cache of weapons stolen from a warehouse and a recent shooting on city streets.

The glass-door conference room on the third floor of police headquarters now serves as an all-inclusive intelligence and operations hub. Double-monitor computers sit on desks in the open-space office, with real-time CitiWatch camera footage displayed on flat-screen TVs and a city map of shootings and arrests.

Interim Police Commissioner Kevin Davis and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake created the war room last month as an "all-hands-on-deck" approach to address a spike in city homicides — the biggest on record — since the death of Freddie Gray, who suffered a severe spinal cord injury while in police custody.

The number of killings hit 200 this week, nearly four months earlier than last year.

The initiative brings together a cast of law enforcement that includes police as well as officials from the mayor's office, city and federal prosecutors, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Administration, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and U.S. Marshals Service.

The Wednesday afternoon meeting was briefly interrupted when Davis entered the war room and the 30 officers and agents stood to recognize the city's top cop. He addressed them, as he does each time he visits.

"We've had a lot of good days, and some not-so-good days," he said. "We just have to string together some good days, and a lot of our good days start right here."

Then Miller, a former undercover narcotics officer and the war room's commander, continued down his list, taking notes as each agency provided updates on how it's responding to the city's violent crime.

A DEA agent reported that phone taps are being executed in South Baltimore to gather information on drug trafficking and gang violence.

An officer relayed that an informant had passed along information about a possible retaliatory shooting planned on the west side, which has been particularly violent since Gray's death in April and subsequent unrest.

Agents and detectives noted that 50 guns were stolen recently from the Northwest Baltimore warehouse of a former firearm licensee. They said they're working on a detailed list of the missing weapons. One might have been found in a nearby home.

"I want a list of every human being connected to that address," Miller responded.

The Secret Service reported that it's running financial information on family members of one particularly elusive East Baltimore suspect, wanted in at least three homicides.

The war room combines intelligence gathering with operations and aims to that ensure that all the players are in sync, Miller said.

"Now it's a collaborative effort where everything is on the table, all the intelligence is shared across the board," he said. "What used to take weeks or months now is taking days to formulate a plan, operationalize that plan, and put cops on the ground to attack it."

Police have compiled a list of 238 "top trigger pullers," who police believe are responsible for most shootings in the city, Miller said.

About 25 to 30 "war board targets" are believed to be responsible for a string of retaliatory shootings between two to three groups on the city's east and west sides. Through efforts in the war room, about half have been arrested, Miller said, bringing that violence "to a screeching halt."

Law enforcement might seek other charges to arrest suspects and get them off the streets, but the war room is dedicated to stopping violent crime.

Twenty-four people accused of drug activity and violence in West Baltimore were indicted Wednesday, based on police work done in the war room, Miller said.

"They basically sent up a flare saying 'Come look at us,'" he said. "Any drug organization that wants to commit violent crime: you're putting a target on your back for us."

Davis, who was quiet for most of the meeting, said afterward that he attends the meetings as often as his schedule allows.

"This is real police work," he said. "I love this stuff. I could sit up here all day long."

Gray's death in April prompted protests and then riots that caused officials to declare a state of emergency in Baltimore and bring in the National Guard.

Since then, May and July each saw more than 40 killings — a record for two months in the same year. About one person has been killed in the city per day in August.

Amid the fallout, Rawlings-Blake fired Police Commissioner Anthony Batts, saying that his presence had become a distraction, and replaced him with Davis.

City officials have increasingly relied on federal assistance as they search for answers to stanch the bleeding.

In addition to the war room, 10 federal agents have temporarily joined the city police homicide unit, an unusual move because local detectives generally join federal investigations, not the other way around. The Baltimore Federal Homicide Task Force, or BFED, as that initiative is known, serves as the limbs to the war room's brain, as one police spokesman put it.

Twenty more agents from the ATF are working cases with the department's CeaseFire unit and providing ballistics examinations to match guns to suspects, and a full-time FBI analyst is assigned to the intelligence section.

Rod J. Rosenstein, the U.S. attorney for Maryland, said federal agents and police have collaborated for at least a decade to secure longer sentences for felony gun offenders and to gather evidence in surveillance and undercover operations.

But now, federal agents are working alongside city homicide detectives to investigate killings in the city, and using the war room to pull together information in one place.

"The most important thing is centralizing the intelligence," Rosenstein said.

At daily meetings, investigators in the war room review homicides from the night before and then work to create lists of targets who might be responsible for violence.

The process, which sometimes includes assistant U.S. attorneys, is "more in real time," Rosenstein said.

From there, federal agents can help build cases by pulling arrest records, reviewing allegations of new activity, conducting surveillance, setting up wiretaps and trying to develop leads on ties to gangs or drugs.

The added agents not only provide more manpower, they also have different areas of expertise. The ATF's K-9 dogs, for instance, are trained to smell gunpowder.

An ATF spokesman, Special Agent David Cheplak, said the war room provides "immediate and direct contact with the BPD officers who have intelligence about gun arrests as they happen."

"We're there to witness where the gun is, how it was found, to be involved in the very beginning," he said. "We can make the process of taking that case federal much faster when we're able to be involved on a daily basis."

Jon Adler, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, said initiatives like federal task forces against terrorism, drugs and gangs are common throughout the country but what Baltimore is doing — bringing in federal agents on homicide cases — is unique.

"It should be the norm," Adler said. "The formula has proven successful."

Adler said agencies can benefit from sharing their varied resources, including different intelligence, informants, technology and manpower. To investigate the high number of homicides, law enforcement needs more interviews, more surveillance, more expertise.

"Just the sheer numbers are overwhelming," he said. "Why not pull it together?"

Montgomery County police Chief J. Thomas Manger, who heads the Major Cities Chiefs Association, called the war room "a very innovative approach." The association recently held a summit in Washington, which Davis attended, to discuss the recent spikes in homicides in cities throughout the country.

Manger said Montgomery County police have a good working relationship with the feds, but "it's different when they are working at the next desk.

"You're going to have that additional experience out there with you, different information, it's all very helpful," he said. "Chiefs around the nation will be paying attention."

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

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