The Baltimore Police Department is poised to shake up its homicide unit for the first time in 50 years and assign detectives to geographic beats, hoping to reduce the murder toll in the nation's fourth-deadliest city.
Under the plan, which significantly alters the way the homicide unit has worked since it was formed after World War II, detectives will answer to a new commander who will also oversee nonfatal shooting investigations and a task force that targets youth violence.
The changes are part of a departmentwide overhaul that makes district lieutenants responsible for groups of neighborhoods on a 24-hour basis, turning the lieutenants into mini-chiefs with discretion over officer deployment and money.
"You want your decision-making authority at the closest point of execution as you can get it," Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier said. "The point of execution is in a patrol car."
Police commanders said the effort is an administrative way of combating homicides, of which the city has logged about 300 annually for the past decade.
The city finished last year with 314 slayings, or 46 homicides per 100,000 people, giving it the nation's fourth-highest murder rate behind Gary, Ind., New Orleans and Washington. Many other cities, including New York and Los Angeles, have dropped to lows not seen since the 1960s.
Most citizens will notice only subtle changes in the department, such as more accessible officers and perhaps more attentiveness to crime problems that trouble their neighborhoods.
Police commanders hope that front-line supervisors will become reinvigorated by their increased responsibilities and the 60 homicide detectives will be able to solve cases more efficiently.
The detectives are being removed from the Crimes Against Persons unit, headed by Maj. Kathleen Patek -- the department's first female homicide commander -- and now answer to the Violent Crimes Task Force, headed by Maj. Jeffrey R. Rosen, putting homicide and shooting cases under one commander.
"We've always recognized that a shooting is an unsuccessful homicide," said Col. John E. Gavrilis, commander of the Criminal Investigation Bureau. The plan, which takes effect Feb. 1, divides the city into three parts: Area 1 is Northwest, Southwest and Southern: Area 2 is Northern, Central and Western; and Area 3 is Northeast, East and Southeast.
Help for neighborhoods
Cleoda Walker, the public safety chairwoman for a Cherry Hill neighborhood group, said the plan will help efforts to turn her community around. New rowhouses are replacing drab public housing units, and Dunkin' Donuts and Subway have returned to a strip mall once abandoned by businesses and overtaken by drug dealers.
"Crime prevention is everybody's business," said Walker, who has lived in Cherry Hill for more than 55 years, while on tour with the police lieutenant in charge of her area. "This plan sets up community togetherness."
For Lt. Jesse Oden, it means more work. "Before, if anything happened, the first thing a lieutenant said was, 'It didn't happen on my shift,' " he said. "Now, whatever happens, it's yours."
Oden, who grew up and lives in Baltimore, said he is tired of standing over young males shot to death on the street. But the 19-year veteran noted the streets of Cherry Hill, once teeming with drug dealers, were empty on a recent Friday night.
His next battle is in neighboring Westport, a hodgepodge of dark, narrow, dead-end streets where guns and drugs dominate and a community association is virtually nonexistent.
In a way, "sector management," as the new policy is dubbed, is a new term for old-style policing -- back to the day when a beat officer owned his or her patrol area. "I don't know what happened to that," Col. Elbert E. Shirey, chief of patrol, said. "I guess we got too smart for our own good."
The homicide unit will only be partially decentralized. Detectives will still work out of headquarters, where they can compare notes on cases and have access to files and computers.
The Metropolitan Police Department in Washington tried to decentralize its homicide unit last year, but gave up after six months.
It had assigned detectives to each of the city's seven districts, but detectives complained that they were too isolated. But that city's new police chief from Chicago, Charles H. Ramsey, wants to return to the decentralization.
Washington police spokesman Joe Gentile said the plan is to make detectives responsible for not just homicides, but all violent crimes, such as rapes, assaults and shootings -- similar to the way New York's force is structured.
Henry H. Brownstein, director of the graduate program in criminal justice at the University of Baltimore, said detectives need to be in one office to be effective, but he said assigning them groups of neighborhoods might help in areas of concentrated violent crime.
"It's really good to know about common patterns, to be able to talk to the people working similar kinds of cases," he said. "You have breaks in the communication system if you have people working in different units."
But he said Baltimore's modified plan will help detectives see the "big picture" of crime in the city by getting them out in the community and talking to beat officers.
The homicide unit, with a clearance rate of about 60 percent -- down from 74 percent in 1995 -- has gone through turmoil under Frazier. Detectives upset at the commissioner's policy of rotating officers through different jobs have quit or expressed public frustration at being transferred.
Officer Gary McLhinney, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3 and an opponent of rotation, said the change in homicide is "a way of covering up that mistake."
But he said the plan has merit. "I agree that having somebody who is very familiar with an area and the players in that area will help in solving cases."
Pub Date: 1/26/99