Solving murders [Editorial]

City police officials have replaced the department's homicide chief in the wake of a string of unsolved murders this summer that shattered what had been a period of relative calm. Maj. Stanley Brandford will take over the homicide unit from Maj. Dennis Smith, who had been running homicide along with the shooting and robbery divisions since April. Putting the unit under separate command is probably the right move given the outsized role homicides play in shaping perceptions of Baltimore. But it may be only the first of many steps the department needs to take in order to restructure the unit in a way that increases its effectiveness.

Major Smith's replacement comes as investigations drag on in the killing of 3-year-old McKenzie Elliott, who was struck by a stray bullet in Waverly on Aug. 1, and 20-year-old Kevin Cook, a college lacrosse player from Mount Washington who was gunned down July 21 while dropping off a teammate in Park Heights. Killings and shootings remain down overall compared to last year, but that is little comfort to those who are looking for justice in the cases of Kevin Cook, McKenzie Elliott or the 11 other people who have been killed in the last three weeks.

It's clear that police need the cooperation of neighborhood residents to solve these crimes — and that for whatever reason, they're not getting it. City Councilman Brandon Scott, a leader on the city's public safety committee, was understandably frustrated recently when he complained that members of the public who withhold information from officers investigating such crimes are in effect "harboring people who kill children." Reshuffling the leadership of the homicide unit may make the department's command structure marginally more efficient, but it won't by itself do much to solve the problem of people feeling afraid of being seen as helping the police put their neighbors and acquaintances in jail.

For that to change, the department will need to establish deeper ties to the communities it serves in a way that allows it to win residents' respect and trust. Yet it's not clear that the way the homicide unit is now structured is the best arrangement for achieving that goal.

Recently, detectives who investigate non-fatal shootings and robberies moved to adopt a model of policing in which detectives operate in teams to work on cases that occur within specific geographical areas of the city. The department's so-called "area" approach encourages officers to get to know all the significant actors in their sectors and to develop relationships with them that enable them to keep tabs on trouble spots and enlist the help of local contacts when needed. The department's strategic plan released last year called for a similar structure for homicide investigations, but the agency has not yet adopted the recommendation.

The plan pointed out that the homicide section has no geographic structure for cases that occur in particular parts of the city. "While many section members argue that such a structure is unwarranted in a small city such as Baltimore, most agree that there are distinct areas of the city and that many criminals regard moving from area to another in Baltimore as the equivalent of moving out of town," the report noted, "meaning that a geographically structured unit could present distinct advantages." It also suggested setting up a pilot project composed of several detectives and a supervisor familiar with the pilot area to test the concept.

While such an arrangement would present challenges — in particular, how to allocate resources in a way that doesn't leave some detective teams overwhelmed with cases while others remain underutilized — the only way to really know if the strategy would be effective is to try it. A experimental pilot program offers the department an opportunity to find out what works and what doesn't before committing the entire homicide unit to the new model, and to adjust the plan if necessary. We think it's definitely something Major Brandford should pursue as he assumes his new post.

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