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Bealefeld speaks out about Harris and murder

The historic election of Barack Obama versus the sobering fact that African-American men keep getting killed on the streets of Baltimore. Those two thoughts were intertwined at last night's City Council hearing on murder in Baltimore. It was supposed to be about updating the public on the investigation into the shooting death of former City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr., who was killed Sept. 20 at a Northeast Baltimore shopping center.

And Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III provide some new tidbits -- that detectives recovered key DNA evidence -- they found a mask and a glove at the scene -- but there are no matches in a national database. He pleaded for witnesses to come forward with a name; that person could be tested and matched and charged. "We have forensic evidence that can close this case tonight," he said.

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But the evening turned into a debate about police, culture and warfare on city streets. Councilwoman Helen Holton wanted Bealefeld to address what she believes is lack of urgency by police to solve not just Harris' death, but other deaths as well. Speaker after speaker invoked Obama's name, saying his election proves that it is time for the community to "step up" and take the city back.

The Rev. P.M. Scott talked about a time when he grew up in Baltimore and knew the cop who walked the beat. He said the officer sat down with residents to catch the last inning of the Orioles game, back in the time when he didn't have a radio but had to call the station from a call box on the corner. "That meant that not only did we rely on him, he relied on us," Scott said. "That officer talked to us and he corrected us and if he had to he called our father's name. It made a difference."

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Others talked about mistrust of police in the black community, how it's understandable that people are scared to come forward in age of witness intimidation, stop snitching and brazen gang violence. They urged police to work harder with community members, such as Operation Safe Streets in Southeast Baltimore, who have "street cred."

That brought an impassioned response from Bealefeld, who noted officers work with a group of ex-felons who can go to the corners and talk with the youth in ways cops can't. Then he talked about the culture of murder in Baltimore: "The majority of these cases are not about dealing a kilo of heroin. These are not about the hierarchy of the Cosa Nostra. These are about minor slights and young men losing their lives over perceived disrespect.

Bealefeld noted that his agency has 48 homicide detectives who each have far more than the three cases per year per detective that is the national average. But unlike other, smaller departments, the city has its own crime lab and he said police can send more resources to a homicide scene than nearly any other police agency in the country. He talked about the city's low clearance rate and turned the mantra -- "one death is too many" -- into "one open death case is too many" and how they have an obligation to clear cases for grieving family members. One man brought a picture of his dead son to complain about how police handled the investigation.

The commissioner said there is an ongoing "source of frustration in getting information about cases." He has repeatedly complained about getting only two calls from the community after Harris was killed, though he noted that more tips are coming in lately. "We are dealing with a phenominon in which some people not only don't trust the police, they don't trust to call 911." He said people who are afraid should go to their council person or clergy member and use them as a conduit.

On Harris, he said, a good tip could lead to a DNA hit on a suspect. "Tell us what rock to look under," Bealefeld pleaded, turning to Holten's complaint about a lack of urgency. "This is not CSI on television where we can solve cases in 30-minute episodes. I don't drive a Fiori and I don't have people that look like they do on the show."

The commissioner said there is some information that can't be shared with the public. He would not address many of the rumors and inuendo floating about the case; in fact, council members who fielded questions from the public didn't even ask Bealefeld to answer many of them. One was about the woman who as in Harris' car when he was shot. Many speakers, including Harris' mother Sylvia, demanded to know who she was and whether she is helping police. Bealefeld, rightly, said it that he can't talk about a witness -- especially after listening to a litany of complaints about how witnesses don't feel safe.

He noted that there are thousands of open homicide cases dating back decades but only one open warrant for a murder suspect -- a man overseas in a country with no extradiction treaty with the United States.

The commissioner talked at length about clearance rates but concluded that relatives of victims don't care about "meaningless stats" if the killers are still on the lose. "What really needs to happen is that if someone takes a life in this city, we have to hold them accountable and he has to go to jail and justice is done."

Bealefeld went through the steps of releasing information on the Harris case, from the grainy video of potentional suspects to telling the public about the mask and now the DNA evidence, timed he said, to keep the story alive. "Your frustration is our frustration," he said. "There are murders in this city that get this much in the paper (he mean't tiny) and others that get plastered all over the front pages and remain in the public conscious."

City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake jumped to Bealefeld's defense. She held up the photos fom the Harris scene and again urged people to help. "As grainy as it is, if you know the persons, you can tell if they are in here. ... we need to show that we value life over the culture of crime." And like others, she eluded to Obama and Tuesday's election:

"If we learned anything from last night it is that our lives are full of possibility," Rawlings-Blake said. "Our lives are not disposable. You don't have to trust Commissioner Bealefed. You don't have to like Commissioner Bealefeld. But you do have to care about human life."

Of the people who killed Harris, she said, "They aren't done. As long as they are on the street, everyone one of us is in danger."

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There are still many unanswered questions about Harris' death. Speakers had broad conspiracy theories and demanded answers police could or would not give. Many left unsatisfied, complaining of a coverup that goes far beyond the killing of Harris, complaining that even the council members don't want the truth in the death of their own colleague.

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