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Concerns arise as police lose homicide veterans


As slayings in Baltimore continue their alarming pace, the city's homicide unit is losing some of its most respected veteran detectives, worrying some prosecutors and police that the trend could threaten the quality of investigations.

Publicly, many detectives say it is simply their time to go. But privately, investigators contend that the policies of the city's police commissioner no longer value their experience.

The latest flurry of retirement bashes, sentimental speeches and parting shots began Aug. 18 with Detective Bertina Silver, one of homicide's first female investigators when she joined the unit seven years ago.

Then came Richard Garvey's night, a week ago at a bar on Harford Road. Next Friday brings a triple whammy -- goodbye to Detectives Donald Worden, Kevin Davis and Donald Waltemeyer, with 80 years of police experience among them.

"What is happening this month with losing these five people is the worst venting of talent at one time that I've ever seen," said Assistant State's Attorney Timothy J. Doory, head of the office's violent-crimes unit. "Great homicide investigators don't come along every day, and out of that group there are some great homicide investigators."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Katharine J. Armentrout said, "It means two things. In court, it is a loss of an experienced detective who can explain to a jury how you go through an investigation. They have credibility with a jury that is just invaluable.

"You hate to lose all of that all of a sudden. I think that is what is unique about this situation."

Other veterans, including Sgt. Gary Childs, Sgt. Jay C. Landsman, Detective Donald K. Ossmus and others have left during the past year, all for other law enforcement jobs.

Despite the losses, commanders point to a 75 percent rate of clearing cases with arrests, which they say is consistently above the national average, as proof that their ability to solve cases is unimpeded.

"No agency likes to lose the base line of experience, but we still have a good blend of experienced detectives and new detectives," said Maj. Wendell M. France, who supervises the unit. "From an investigation standpoint, we are doing much better then we were a year or two ago."

The detectives have been involved in some of the most high-profile murders in the last 10 years, along with the lesser-known killings that occur almost daily in Baltimore.

They have been known as some of the unit's great teachers and as its institutional memory. Their working lives have even been dramatized in a television series.

Colleagues -- coffee cups and case files in hand -- have been known to line up for Detective Worden's advice. He is noted for his prodigious memory and his ability to create an instant rapport with suspects and witnesses from all walks of life. Prosecutors recall his effectiveness on the witness stand.

"Nobody is going to replace Donald Worden," said homicide Sgt. Mark Tomlin, who was 2 years old when Detective Worden joined the force. "That's just the way it is. It's like the Yankees losing Babe Ruth. Others guys became stars in their own right, but nobody replaced Babe Ruth.

"But the homicide unit will go on. This place always survives. People come here to work. Solving cases is a matter of pride."

Detective Worden, 55, said it is time to move on.

"I grew up with the job, I grew old with the job, and it's my turn to leave and it's time for someone else to come in," he said. "I have all the confidence in the world they'll do a good job, and homicide should go on the way it's been going. It existed when I got there, and it'll exist after I leave."

"We have probably some of the finest homicide investigators in the country," Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier said. "Don Worden is . . . one of, if not the premier investigator in the unit."

Some homicide detectives say Mr. Frazier's policy of rotating officers every few years is partly to blame for the exodus.

Although the policy -- which won't take effect for six months -- could cost units experienced officers, the commissioner says it jTC opens opportunities for younger detectives, especially women and minorities, who might otherwise never get a shot at homicide investigation.

Despite the departures, the homicide unit has about 70 detectives, nearly twice as many as in 1988, when there were 238 homicides in Baltimore. There have been more than 300 homicides in each of the past five years.

At his retirement party, over crabs and beer, Mr. Garvey said, "Leaving all of you is probably one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. The good thing for leaving is that I've got the memories with me.

"The unit's going through some real big changes right now. . . . To the older guys, stick it out. You're going to need all the luck in the world."

At 43, Mr. Garvey has many more years of work in him. But he will spend them as an investigator for the federal public defender's office in Harrisburg, Pa., while drawing his detective's pension.

"Absolutely nothing is being done to keep people with years of experience," said Mr. Garvey, who had spent 20 years in the unit. "It's almost like they want us to leave."

Mr. Garvey contends that the quality of the cases police make has been declining, that even though a high percentage of cases is "cleared," fewer make it to a grand jury.

"Several years ago, you had a certain amount of pride in not only making an arrest, but getting an indictment," he said, adding that now, "we are clearing cases by arrest, but we are not getting to court. I don't see what the citizens of Baltimore gain by having a suspect arrested and seeing him set out 30 days later."

State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said she met with Mr. Frazier last month to discuss various aspects of the relationships between the offices, including homicide work.

She said her concerns were limited to a couple of cases and that in one of those instances, "experience is not an issue."

"At this time, I can't say I have any major concerns, because I got the sense that there's a real commitment from the top that the problems are going to be dealt with," Mrs. Jessamy said.

Privately, prosecutors say mistakes are starting to show up in cases forwarded to them -- some resulting from lack of experience and some, perhaps, from a changing cast of characters.

Some cases show up as clearances in homicide statistics, for example, but languish in limbo between arrest and indictment. But there has not been an increase in such cases, according to statistics provided by Mrs. Jessamy's office.

Mr. Frazier said he doesn't see a problem. "I don't have any reason to think that the actual number of cases brought to trial has decreased," he said. "If that's going on, I don't know about it."

Mr. Doory said some cases have always fallen through the cracks and said of the new investigators, "Give them a chance. I don't think it's time to criticize."

At Rich Garvey's retirement party, Detective John Thanner -- who arrived in homicide just over a year ago -- pondered the end of his own era as Mr. Garvey's student in the art and science of homicide investigation.

"Rich kind of took me under his wing," Detective Thanner said. "He's a consummate professional and a great guy to learn from. It's like a master craftsman and an apprentice.

"I wish he was still there."

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