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A police department in decline


First they stripped the city robbery unit, transferring one investigator after another into homicide in an effort to keep pace with Baltimore's murder rate. Where once there were 18 robbery detectives, by late last year there were only six.

Then the bank robberies began -- dozens of them. In desperation, the police command staff turned to the depleted sex offense unit, sending its lone supervisor into the robbery squad.

By November, that left exactly one detective to follow up on the more than 300 sexual assaults reported annually in Baltimore. Detective Dorothea Parker then went to her commander, Capt. John J. MacGillavery, telling him the situation was ridiculous, according to department sources. With a new case every workday, she had no time to interview victims or witnesses, no time to show suspect photos or identify a pattern of crimes. Women were being raped, and nothing was being done.

The captain agreed but could offer no immediate help.

"I guess you'll have to put on your roller skates," he reportedly told her.

This is the reality of the Baltimore Police Department, an agency that once prided itself on aggressive investigation and only five years ago posted arrest rates above national averages. Burdened by a lack of resources, devoted to strategies many veteran officers view as flawed and battered by record rates of violence and drug abuse, the department is watching its most essential function -- its ability to deter crime -- inexorably diminish.

From 1987 to 1992, total felony crime in Baltimore jumped by more than 37 percent to all-time levels, and in the first 10 months of 1993, the crime rate rose another 2.5 percent. While much of that can be attributed to a national cocaine epidemic, a proliferation of guns and other societal factors, city detectives and officers say much is also linked to the department's weakened investigative response.

"If you want to reduce the numbers of shootings, robberies and rapes," says one veteran detective, "you have to lock up some shooters, robbers and rapists. Most violent offenders are going to continue to do crimes until they're caught."

Yet the department now lags behind the national average in its arrest rate for life-threatening assaults and robberies, while the percentage of burglaries solved by the agency has fallen by almost a third since 1988. "No surprise there," says a former property crimes investigator. "Five years ago, there were more than 20 people in the burglary unit. Now it's down to seven."

The arrest rate for rape, too, has fallen by almost 10 percentage points in that same period and remains above the national average only because harried detectives routinely dismiss as unfounded dozens of sexual assault complaints that they have, in fact, been unable to adequately investigate, department sources say.

"It's really tragic what's happening in that unit," says Officer Jeanne Mewbourne, a veteran sex offense detective who now teaches at the police academy. "What does the department think one detective is going to do with that many cases? Even at full strength you only had four people there, and there were too many cases. Now, it's impossible."

In late December, the Police Department finally acted. They assigned a second investigator: "Look on the bright side," says one veteran commander in the criminal investigations division. "That's a 100 percent increase in manpower."

Cynicism aside, many in the department say the Baltimore Police Department's investigative function has been hollowed by attrition, neglect and competing priorities.

As the arrest rates fell, critics say, department leaders ignored the growing deficiencies in the investigative units and instead emphasized more visible programs: neighborhood service, foot patrols, bicycle squads, street-level drug sweeps -- any project in which police activity would be visible to politicians, community groups and merchant associations.

It didn't work. By last fall, the most notable victim of the failed strategy was Police Commissioner Edward V. Woods, who after four years was forced out by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke asindications of the police agency's problems began mounting. Nor is Mr. Schmoke spared the criticism of many veteran police commanders and officers.

"Schmoke made this mess," says one ranking commander. "Eddie Woods was his man."

Now the job of controlling Baltimore's runaway crime rate falls to the mayor's second choice, Deputy Chief Thomas C. Frazier of )) the San Jose, Calif., department, who is expected to be confirmed as Baltimore's next police commissioner by the City Council tomorrow.

'A terrible job'

In hard-hit communities and middle-class neighborhoods alike, few are well served.

In fact, an examination by The Sun of a weekend's crime in November 1992 -- more than a year past -- revealed that with rare exception, any crime short of murder received only the initial attention of the responding officer. Follow-up investigation usually consisted of paperwork, and arrests generally occurred only when victims could immediately identify the suspect.

Gloria Burgess of East Baltimore called police the night her home was burglarized. They took a report, but couldn't life fingerprints from her window. "After that, I didn't here back from anyone."

Tamayne Carter of West Baltimore never talked with a follow-up investigator when he was robbed at gunpoint that same weekend.

At least Phyllis Clanton of the Perkins Homes in East Baltimore -- another of the more than 12,000 robbery victims in 1992 -- knows the name of the officer who was assigned to probe an armed robbery that cost her a full paycheck. He left her a number to call in case she saw the suspect again.

Chances of a police officer actually looking for the gunman are minimal. The few detectives assigned to investigate armed robberies now only handle commercial holdups; thousands of street robberies are pursued haphazardly by a handful of district officers.

"They do a terrible job," says Pam Faria of the Chesapeake Randall Corp., a brokerage company for food manufacturers that was once again burglarized on that November weekend. "We've given them all kinds of information with names and everything of who's been stealing and taking our checkbooks, and nothing's been done. Go to the Northern district and look at our files.

"We've been robbed 15 times in the last 10 years," Ms. Faria added, noting that shortly after the November burglary, the company relocated from 25th Street to Howard County. "That's why we're no longer in the city."

Minia Faye Jones, an East Baltimore woman victimized four times by car thieves, has had similar experiences. "Any time I've had problems of this kind, I've had no feedback," she says, noting that the last police investigation consisted of filling out forms.

For Ms. Jones and other victims of the record 11,331 auto thefts recorded in the city in 1992, the truth is that the department's seven auto theft investigators no longer even attempt to gather physical evidence. Recovered vehicles are routinely returned to owners from the Pulaski Highway impound lot without so much as a hint of fingerprint dust.

"We just don't have the manpower to follow up in that way," admits one detective.

The auto theft unit is not unique in its poverty. In other investigative units, personnel shortages have impaired performance, according to line commanders. In 1972, there were 284 detectives and supervisors in the criminal investigation division, the department's detective bureau. By 1984, the number had dropped to 224. Now, there are 199.

"This place is like a graveyard," says one veteran shift commander in the detective division. "Except for homicide and narcotics, there isn't very much investigation being done because there's no one left to investigate. Soon, they'll be tumbleweeds blowing through the offices."

/# But how did it happen? And why?

'No one can see it'

To be sure, much that ails the Baltimore Police Department is due to a lack of manpower, the result of nearly two decades of planned attrition made necessary by the city's growing poverty. Beginning with William Donald Schaefer in the mid-1980s, Baltimore's mayors have chosen to save money by reducing the department's ranks or declining to fill budgeted positions. (See related story, Page 21A)

Coupled with the rising crime rate, such attrition has profoundly affected the quality of police service. In 1992, there were only 13 officers on the street for every 100 violent crimes committed in this city. Four years earlier, there were 20 officers to contend with the same workload. In 1976, the number was 24.

But many department insiders say that as much as the raw numbers, it was the philosophy of Mr. Woods and his deputies that led to the agency's declining deterrent. Time and again, Mr. Woods chose to use his dwindling resources to emphasize only the most visible programs.

Simultaneously, the department reduced the resources for investigating and solving felony crime -- except for the high-profile crime of murder. Whether Mr. Woods or his deputies made City Hall officials aware of the trend is uncertain; what is clear, according to department sources, is that no one raised any serious objections as detectives began to disappear.

Mayor Schmoke says now that he wasn't informed of specific cutbacks to investigative units: "I wasn't aware of that, and I didn't authorize that. If there's a problem there, it's certainly something for the new commissioner to deal with."

Nevertheless, critics within the department -- including veteran commanders and detectives -- say the policy was dictated by public perceptions and expectations.

"The trouble with the retroactive investigation of crime is that no one can see it happening," says one veteran commander, a critic the current departmental priorities. "You can see a foot patrolman, or a new bicycle squad. But a detective who solves a robbery or a rape isn't going to get any public attention. He does what he does without being visible to the public."

As a result, the same Police Department that can muster only two investigators for hundreds of rape complaints was able to find dozens of officers to fully staff bicycle squads in each district last year. Defending such priorities, a Northern District shift commander recently credited his two-wheeled squad with making 40 arrests in 10 months -- a rate of about one arrest a month per officer.

"Congratulations," says a Northeastern District supervisor. "Most patrolmen working their posts make at least one arrest every couple days."

Likewise, the same agency that allows only one or two officers to probe hundreds of serious shootings in most of its precincts can still maintain a 22-officer mounted division and a canine unit with an authorized strength of 45 officers -- functions that increase the department's visibility but are less directly involved in crime suppression.

"If you get shot, it might not get investigated," says one district shift commander, "but we have one hell of a dog-and-pony show. The reasoning behind that is that cops with dogs and cops on horses are a visible presence and cops in plainclothes solving shootings are not."

The effect of such neglect: Five years ago, the Baltimore police "cleared" -- through arrest or dismissal -- more than 60 percent of 6,574 serious assaults in the city. In 1992, for the first time, the clearance rate for 8,452 reported aggravated assaults fell to less than 50 percent.

In real numbers, this means that five years ago, the department was unable to solve 2,612 serious assaults, but by 1992, that figure had grown to 4,256 -- an increase of more than 60 percent in the number of cases in which a violent offender attacked someone and remained on the street.

Such a decline in the arrest rate for serious assaults is particularly telling when set against the city's homicide clearance rate -- which remained above 70 percent during those same years. Detectives note that an aggravated assault can often be easier to solve than a murder; a victim is alive to possibly provide information.

Residents of neighborhoods beset by gunfire understand the phenomenon only too well:

"We see these people who are responsible for the shootings -- and everyone in the neighborhood knows who they are," says Linwood Cole, a Pimlico Road resident. "But within a day or a week, they're back on the corner. No one ever does anything

about them."

'We're essentially reactive'

Mr. Woods and his subordinates focused on more visible initiatives because they undervalued aggressive police investigation, according to many city commanders and detectives.

In repeated public appearances before his departure in November, Mr. Woods was fond of noting that the traditional police methods of patrol and retroactive investigation cannot deter a specific crime: If someone is going to commit a murder, there is little any police force can do to prevent the act. Therefore, Mr. Woods has told neighborhood groups, the city's rising crime rate was beyond the department's control.

"With regard to a department's patrol function and the 911 system, that's generally true," says James Fyfe, a Temple University professor and law enforcement expert. "No matter how many cops you deploy on the street, you are not going to deter a person intent on committing a crime."

But Dr. Fyfe and others also note that retroactive investigation of crimes can have an effect on crime rates, simply because more of the people continually engaged in criminal acts are arrested and convicted.

"Even in a city of Baltimore's size, the arrest and conviction of a few dozen stickup men -- guys who are doing crimes repeatedly -- could mean a 5 percent decline in the robbery rate," says one veteran city prosecutor. "The same could be said for a few key prosecutions of repeat sex offenders or violent drug suspects."

While Mr. Woods and his deputies repeatedly argued in 1992 that they were doing everything possible to reduce Baltimore's violence, most of the city's 8,400 serious assaults -- many of them would-be murders -- were dumped on district officers who haven't the time or resources to investigate the crimes.

"With a nonfatal shooting or stabbing, the follow-up investigation will consist of asking the victim if he knows who tried to kill him," says one district-level investigator. "If he doesn't, by and large, that ends it, because with rare exception, no one in the media or the general public pays attention to any crime other than murder."

As a result, say detectives, many repeat violent offenders stay on the street after committing a string of shootings or cuttings, only to receive attention when their actions finally manage to result in a homicide.

Consider the routine case of Ronald "Tater Man" Nance, a street-level gunman who terrorized the Lafayette Courts high-rises from the late 1980s until 1991, when he was finally convicted of a 1990 drug-related slaying. Nance's name had surfaced in four homicide investigations and six other shooting cases before he was finally brought down, sources said.

"In this department, there isn't any attempt to target people like that, to identify them and go after them before they do more damage," says one detective. "We're essentially reactive."

The Boston example

Law enforcement experts say that those who argue that a police department can do little to control the rate of violence might do well to consider what happened in Boston in 1990.

After suffering an all-time high of 153 murders in that year, the Boston Police Department organized a 60-officer gang violence unit that gathered intelligence on violent drug groups and youth gangs.

"Everything we learned, we put into our computer," says Lt. Kevin Foley, commander of the unit. "And from what we learned, we prioritized our targets. Then we used whatever means we could to get them off the street."

In case after case, members of the gang unit found that their targets had often been responsible for one shooting after another but had managed to elude arrest because of the noncooperation of victims and witnesses.

"But if we couldn't charge them with the shootings, we were convinced that they were still responsible," says Lieutenant Foley. "So we went after them aggressively and got them on whatever charges we could -- handgun violations, drugs, violation of probation, whatever."

Then, to complete the process, a special prosecutorial unit was established to ensure that cases against gang unit targets wouldn't languish in arraignment court but be sent directly to the grand jury for indictment.

The next year, Boston's murder count fell to 116. By 1992, only 76 people were slain in the city -- less than half of the total two years earlier. Last year, too, the murder rate remained low at 98 slayings: "I'm convinced that the gang unit had a great deal to do with that. It was old-style, aggressive police work," says Lieutenant Foley. Other cities have taken notice.

In Houston, a police department criticized as ineffective won sudden support by moving away from community-oriented policing -- and back to targeting violent offenders. Since the change, crime has declined by 22 percent.

By contrast, consider the Baltimore Police Department's experience with its own 41-officer violent crime task force, formed in the summer of 1992. Although officials originally claimed that the new unit would pursue those responsible for repeat shootings, the task force did little of the sort.

Instead, Eugene Tanzymore, the deputy commissioner for patrol services, stayed true to the departmental philosophy of emphasizing the visible aspect of policing. Over the objections of his colleague, Melvin McQuay, the deputy for operations, Mr. Tanzymore sent task force officers to high-crime areas to make routine drug arrests and seize the occasional weapon.

Task force detectives who wanted to target violent offenders were quickly transferred. Intelligence-gathering became sporadic, and soon the new unit was measuring its success by the numbers of drug arrests or confiscated guns: "They didn't want to spend the time to work a serious case up on a bad guy," says a veteran detective. "They wanted to go out on the street and run up stats."

Now, more than a year later, the impact of the task force has been minimal -- with one notable exception. In the Eastern District -- where the department is experimenting with community policing -- officials were able to wrest six task force officers from downtown and use them to follow up on serious shootings in Baltimore's most violent precinct.

"It's working well," says Officer Edward Bochniak, who until last March was the only Eastern officer assigned to investigate hundreds of east-side shootings. The plainclothes man would often come into work after a violent weekend to confront a dozen fresh crime reports. He'd work on one or two and have to drop the rest.

But the lesson has yet to be applied citywide. In every other city district, there are plainclothes officers struggling as Officer Bochniak struggled before last year. In the Western District, two officers are assigned to follow up on between 20 and 30 shootings a month; a third officer is saddled with three times that many armed robberies.

Many in the department expect the task force to adopt a more relevant mission now that its control has passed to Col. Leon Tomlin, a veteran of the detective bureau who has expressed more interest in targeting offenders than reaping drug arrest statistics.

Says Capt. Gary Lembach, the task force's new commander since fall: "We'd like to see the task force get responsibility for investigating nonfatal shootings."

Changes in strategy may be coming, but critics in the department say they are long overdue; the task force has been in place for a year and a half. In the interim, task force supervisors have contented themselves at neighborhood meetings to cite drug and gun seizures from street arrests with pride -- though the numbers are no greater than what any 30-member shift of patrol officers might recover during an ordinary tour. They acknowledge they are not actively targeting violent suspects.

"That isn't our role. The career criminals unit targets people like that," task force Sgt. John Lewis told a Western District community meeting last year. That was enough of an answer to comfort the citizens at the meeting.

But of course, the sergeant neglected to mention that the career criminals unit was staffed by exactly one investigator. True, that single detective, Harry Edgerton, was until August of last year LTC trying to contribute the type of police work that worked well in Boston and Houston.

For example, Detective Edgerton recently assisted homicide detectives in the successful prosecution of Warren "Dinky" Stuckey, a Park Heights gangster suspected in six drug-related slayings and found guilty last month of felony murder: "There's not a lot of resources to this unit," says Detective Edgerton. "But I tried to work on someone likely to do more shootings."

But five months ago, after a dispute with superiors, Detective Edgerton was detailed to administrative duties in the auto theft unit. The career criminals unit cited by Sergeant Lewis to reassure community leaders is now a paper entity.

"We've forgotten what it means to police a city," says another detective bitterly. "When a serious crime is committed, you're supposed to find out who did it and lock them up. When you give up on that, you give up on everything."

About this series

Only a generation ago, the Baltimore Police Department had a national reputation for good patrol work, effective investigations and a minimum of corruption.

Now, with its ranks thinned by years of attrition and its performance increasingly criticized by citizens and officers alike, the agency is undergoing its worst crisis of confidence in nearly two decades, according to many ranking commanders and veteran officers. With a new commissioner taking over, this is a crucial time.

This series is the result of more than 100 interviews with officers, mid-level supervisors and commanders during the last year, as well as with former city police officials, law enforcement experts and representatives of other police agencies.

Many Baltimore officers and commanders interviewed asked not be identified, fearing retaliation by supervisors. Many former city police officials would only speak on the same condition, concerned that their comments would offend former colleagues in the department leadership.

Former Police Commissioner Edward V. Woods declined to be interviewed as did three of his top commanders: Deputy Commissioner for Patrol Eugene Tanzymore, Col. George Christian, commander of the Criminal Investigation Division, and Deputy Commissioner for Operations Melvin McQuay. Mr. McQuay did, however, make a comment about his desire to root out corruption in the department.

Information for the series was also provided by a variety of documents from the Baltimore Police Department, by individual officers, by other police agencies, by state corrections officials and by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Tomorrow: The Baltimore department's war on drugs has largely focused on street-level arrests that rarely result in prison time, instead of targeting major traffickers or violent offenders.

Tuesday: Poor morale, a loss of professionalism and increasing incidents of corruption have taken their toll.

Wednesday: Within the ranks, there have long been questions about the capabilities of those leading the department. And almost all of the critics blame Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke for allowing a leadership vacuum.

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