Computer system to obtain mug shots is hindering arrests, police complain State prison system says it's working on problems


Baltimore police detectives cannot easily access mug shots from a computerized database run by the state prison system, drawing complaints from city investigators that arrests of potentially dangerous criminals are being hindered.

A prison spokesman called the problem a "temporary glitch" that will be fixed in one to two months and allow detectives "to search to their hearts' content." City police, however, remain skeptical.

"It's a real concern to the Police Department," said Maj. Jeffrey Rosen, head of the Central Records Division, who said the state is a year behind in updating its mug shot equipment. "The detectives have a legitimate concern."

The problem means that detectives from robbery to homicide cannot quickly access photographs of potential suspects to show witnesses or other officers, who sometimes find it helpful to serve an arrest warrant with a picture in hand.

One homicide detective, who spoke on the condition he not be named, said he recently had a witness to a fatal shooting ready to identify a suspect, but was told a photograph would take weeks.

He said they could not locate the suspect for a lineup or a street identification, and if the witness had been able to make a positive identification from a photo, police would have been able to issue an arrest warrant.

"It's hard enough to find a witness who will talk," the detective said. "Now we got to tell them, 'Sorry, go home, come back in two weeks.' "

Police were unable to estimate how many potential suspects have eluded them while investigators wait for mug shots.

The trouble over photographs is the latest dispute between state and city law enforcement agencies over the state-run $56 million Central Booking and Intake Center, which opened 2 1/2 years ago on East Madison Street next to the downtown prison complex. It was designed to streamline the processing of 70,000 arrestees in the city each year.

But when the facility opened, police complained that it took up to four hours to process an arrestee, keeping officers from the street. The time has now been reduced to less than two hours.

City police used to book arrestees in district station houses and mug shots were stored at the downtown headquarters building. Mug shots taken before 1996 are still there and easily accessible to detectives who work at headquarters.

The new setup was expected to save police time by eliminating trips to headquarters by officers who work in far-flung stations.

But digital photos taken since Central Booking opened in October 1995 are stored in computers. State officials said accessing the database consumes time and the system is not set up to handle multiple requests.

Officers must fax a written mug shot request to the booking center, where workers electronically retrieve the pictures from a database and move them to a file accessible to the detectives. The process takes one to two hours, said Leonard A. Sipes Jr., spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Because of computer limitations, the first requested photograph stays in the queue until the detective accesses it. This prevents other detectives from retrieving pictures in a timely fashion, unless they delete the first image.

Sipes said the delays are often caused by officers who don't download their pictures when they are available. "Everyone can be accommodated now if everyone works together," he said.

Police commanders argue that the system is impractical for an agency of 3,200 officers spread throughout the city and working different shifts, making it difficult for them to communicate with each other.

Rosen said part of the problem is that mug shots taken in 1996 and 1997 have been archived. Accessing them requires temporarily halting the photographing of new suspects because the camera is linked to the computer, which cannot perform both functions simultaneously, he said.

Sipes said he thinks detectives "are justifiably concerned over the time that some of the photo transfers take." But he said the improved system will increase downloading and access capacity and will allow many officers to search through the mug shots in the database, eliminating waiting.

Pub Date: 5/29/98

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