It's a few minutes before dawn, and the team of agents clad in bulletproof vests gathers outside the transitional house in Northwest Baltimore
With one member taking position out back to ensure no one slips away, they step up to the front door and start knocking at 5:50 a.m..
Permitted inside, they quickly nab their prize: Charles Hawkins, who has broken the terms of his parole for a theft of less than $500. His housemate for the past five months, Jimmy Brown, sits on a chair in the front room shaking his head, dazed at being awakened at such an early hour. "I hope this is a dream," he said.
With most Baltimoreans still asleep, the Maryland Division of Parole and Probation's Warrant Apprehension Task Force hit the streets of the city and surrounding counties early yesterday morning picking up violators.
"When you have a guy wreaking havoc throughout the city and you go out there and get them, you're doing your part to help the city," said Senior Agent Virgil Sampson.
Every weekday from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. and every weekend from 5 a.m. to 1 p.m., the task force looks for people who have violated terms of their probation or parole. Many are convicted felons who have missed required meetings with parole officers, failed mandatory drug tests or become involved with another crime.
A staff of 90
Based in a building once used by a wholesale drug company at the corner of 29th Street and Remington Avenue, the task force of about 90 people works seven days a week. It includes police officers from the city and neighboring counties, state troopers, parole and probation agents as well as housing police.
Since it began in March 2001, the unit averages about 85 arrests a month, said Vernon S. Skuhr, bureau chief for the Warrant Apprehension Unit. Another 120 warrants are cleared -- meaning they have been confirmed as canceled or the subjects were arrested elsewhere. In the 2004 fiscal year, the unit had an 80 percent clearance rate for warrants, Skuhr said.
"I don't know if these people are hard to find or if we're that good," Skuhr said.
Searching for parole violators is no easy task. Most don't have fixed addresses, and they know they're being sought, which means they move often between friends and family.
Others, knowing that the task force often strikes in the early morning, leave their homes early. Violators addicted to drugs often hide in a place where they can get high all day, said Senior Agent Tim Campbell.
Another problem for the unit is that some of its members cannot forcibly enter buildings. They must be invited inside, unless police officers are part of the teams of four or five agents.
Yesterday morning, five teams set out after the 5 a.m. briefing.
"When you're knocking on doors, you never know what you're going to find," said Lt. William Cheney, commander of a team.
Over the course of about four hours, team members knocked on doors where parole violators lived months ago. In most cases, no one was home or no one answered the door. In others, family members provided possible locations or claimed they did not know where the violators were staying.
At about 9:30 a.m., Cheney's team found their man again, surprising Andre Smith in his home in North Baltimore. He had served a jail sentence for possession with intent to distribute cocaine. After being let out on parole, he missed at least 10 meetings with his parole officers, skipped drug tests and failed to notify his agent of an arrest, records show.
Gone for a while
As a groggy Smith climbed out of bed, the reality of going back to jail set in. He cursed and asked someone to notify the clients of his painting business that he would be gone for a while.
"I need to brush my teeth," he said.
By 1 p.m., the teams had made 52 stops, Cheney said. They arrested 11, almost tying their record of 12 in a day.
But a fresh stack of warrants was piling up. "There's never a shortage," said Skuhr. "There's always new ones to take the place of the other ones."