Police in Baltimore are joining forces with their suburban neighbors to hunt thousands of fugitives wanted in the region for crimes ranging from petty theft to murder.
Until now, serving warrants has not been a priority for police, but in an effort that crosses jurisdictional lines, law enforcement agencies are focusing their attention on just that - with the creation of the regional Warrant Apprehension Task Force.
"We've decided to join forces and go after the small number of criminals that have been plaguing the city for years," Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris said yesterday, announcing the official start of the task force. "Most of [the work] will be done in the city, but it will benefit the region."
The task force is a centerpiece of Norris' plan to drive down the city's high murder rate by targeting the small number of city criminals believed to be committing the majority of violent crimes.
The new group - made up of 75 law enforcement officers from five area police departments, the Maryland State Police, FBI and U.S. Marshal's Office - is the area's second regional police task force. The other regional unit, a joint auto theft task force created in 1994 by Baltimore city and county police, has about 30 members.
Police in Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard counties hope that targeting city fugitives also will reduce their violent crime by targeting city criminals who cross into their territory.
Powers extended to task force members effectively erase the boundaries between the city and the surrounding counties by deputizing members to make arrests outside their jurisdiction. It means Baltimore police can track fugitives to the suburban cul-de-sacs of Howard County, and Anne Arundel County officers can do the same on drug-infested corners in the city.
The new task force will be based in Baltimore police headquarters and led by Baltimore Maj. John L. Bergbower. Funding for the task force will come in part from each individual agency.
The undertaking, because of the backlog of warrants, is a daunting task.
In addition to the estimated 54,000 outstanding warrants in Baltimore City, there are 12,500 in Anne Arundel, 10,500 in Baltimore County, and 3,804 in Howard. Anne Arundel police said 300 of their warrants list city addresses; 25 percent of the outstanding warrants in Howard County had either a Baltimore City or Baltimore County address. Officials estimate that 40 percent of outstanding warrants for crimes that occurred in Baltimore County have city addresses.
For officers, identifying the fugitive is not always easy.
When city police pulled up in the 200 block of N. Luzerne Ave. after 7 a.m. Friday to arrest a suspect in an assault, they confronted a young man washing the rowhouse's front steps.
The 23-year-old handed officers a driver's license with a name different from that on the warrant. He denied knowing the girl who said she was hit in the face with a cell phone during a domestic argument.
Officer Kevin Brown glanced at his arrest warrant. The man and the suspect named in the warrant were of similar height and weight. Their dates of birth were one month off. He believed he had found the suspect.
"The date of birth is nearly the same, and his height and weight are the same," said Officer Forrest Taylor, who works with Brown. "And he's giving us a song and dance on his name."
To make sure, Brown telephoned the victim and concluded his hunch was right. The name on the warrant was wrong, but they had found their man.
"Our motto is, 'Don't let them fool you,'" Brown said, climbing back into his unmarked car at the end of a morning in which he banged on eight doors and found four fugitives.
When they set out, the officers were after a variety of fugitives - from a man charged with hitting his girlfriend because she called him "ugly" to a homicide suspect.
Brown and his partner, Officer Lisa Johnson, start each day at 4 a.m., when the suspected drug dealers, addicts and others are usually asleep and not expecting a visit from police.
By 6:30 a.m. Friday, the two-officer team was about halfway through their pile of warrants when they pulled up to a rowhouse in the 1900 block of E. Lanvale St.
They immediately noticed a fan in an upstairs window, blowing cool air inside. "Someone's home," Brown said.
"Police," he yelled, rapping several times on the door.
Finally, the man they were seeking came to the door, saying he was still in bed when they started knocking. The 38-year-old was taken away on a charge that he failed to obey a court order while out on bail on a drug charge.
The hunt can be frustrating. Names on warrants are wrong. Addresses come back to vacant lots or empty buildings. Finding a person can involve as much investigating as solving the crime itself.
No one answered at a house on Woodbine Avenue in Northeast Baltimore, where a woman wanted on a theft charge supposedly lived. Brown yelled to a neighbor through a closed window.
"Anybody live there?" he asked.
The woman shook her head no.
"Do you know where she moved to?" Brown asked
She mouthed back a no.
"You know her name?" he asked again.
Getting the same response, the officers left empty-handed.
Serving warrants has not been considered a glamorous part of police work. A year ago, just five city officers had the task of tracking people wanted on 54,000 crimes, including 260 for murder and attempted murder - some dating back to 1970.
Most fugitives were not picked up on outstanding warrants until they got arrested on another crime. "Obviously, it wasn't a priority," said Lt. Jay Fisher, who supervises the unit. Staffing went up to 36 officers when Norris took over.
Norris spent 19 years on the New York Police Department and rose to be a deputy commissioner before coming to Baltimore. He was the architect of New York's revamped warrant section.
"The threat that fugitives pose to law-abiding citizens cannot be overstated," Norris told a U.S. Senate subcommittee recently.
"We are impacted by crime committed by criminals from the city everyday," Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger said yesterday at the announcement of the task force's formation. "We expect dramatic decreases in crime."
Fisher said a review of outstanding warrants in Baltimore found that about 1,200 were for suspects who are now dead.
And arrests are climbing. In the first six months of this year, the city's fugitive unit has arrested 65 murder suspects, up from 11 during the same time in 1999. Arrests for other offenses have shot up across the board: 72 shooting suspects, compared with 45 during the first half of last year; and 110 assault suspects, up from 60 at this time in 1999.
"We got so lax about serving criminals," said Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley. "There are different expectations now, and we are going to rise to it."