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GunStat shifts officials' targets

The Baltimore Sun

In his 23 years, Tyrone Henderson has been arrested eight times in Baltimore on gun charges - twice just this year.

And though he has never been convicted, his arrest record is drawing the attention of city officials as one of more than 300 people being tracked through Mayor Sheila Dixon's new "GunStat" project.

Designed to chronicle gun cases from start to finish - including the kinds of weapons seized, bail amounts, defendants' criminal histories and court outcomes - the three-month-old project is already revealing some surprising information about the people accused of felony gun crime.

Half of those charged for murder this year have a gun arrest in their history, Baltimore police say, and with homicides on pace to surpass 300 this year, analyzing gun defendants before they become fatal shooting suspects has taken on a new importance.

Police officials are using the GunStat data to target enforcement efforts at gun "hotspot" neighborhoods. And the U.S. attorney for Maryland, Rod J. Rosenstein, says the statistical analysis helps to identify defendants who should be considered for federal prosecution, which often carries harsher penalties.

The mayor says GunStat will also hold the criminal justice partners - courts, police and probation - accountable.

"When you have the facts and you have the information, then you can go to the respective entities and say, 'What is it going to take?'" she said.

But the approach has also sparked criticism. Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy says the statistics can be misleading because they omit important details about court cases.

The head of the city police union calls GunStat "a waste of time."

"We have all of these 'stats,'" said Lt. Paul M. Blair Jr., the union president. "We're talking ourselves to death. More meetings, more time wasted gathering data. It's not putting people in jail."

Once every two weeks, about a dozen police, prosecution, probation and city officials gather at City Hall to review GunStat findings.

At a meeting Thursday, they discussed tracking where the guns used in crimes are purchased. And they talked about the "priority cases" - people they hope to keep off city streets. But the focus of the meeting was the packets of statistics, which were distributed to the agency representatives.

The summary report from Jan. 1 through July 21 assesses 324 gun crime defendants (it does not include people charged with murder). Among the findings:

Henderson tops the list of most gun arrests. An additional 27 defendants have between four and six gun arrests. Nine people have two gun convictions.

The average age of a defendant is 26; the youngest is 15, and the oldest is 59. Fifty-five juveniles have been charged as adults.

Bail was set for 196 defendants, the average amount being about $452,000. No bail recommendation was made for 116 defendants, and 11 others were released on their own recognition.

Of 75 gun defendants whose cases have been resolved, about one-third were convicted or pleaded guilty. Prosecutors either dropped charges or stopped pursuing - "stetted" - the rest of the cases. The 25 sentences so far average out to about three years and 10 months of prison time per defendant.

In an interview, Dixon said that gun crimes - not just homicides - must be a priority. Referring to defendants who have multiple gun arrests, she said, "What's so startling is that we have allowed this to continue to go on and on.

"We have to be in the judges' faces, the state's attorneys' faces, state, federal, everybody and say, 'Look at this person's record.'"

Henderson's history of arrests is particularly alarming to the people involved with GunStat.

His eight gun cases date back to May 1999, when he was 15 years old. None of those cases ended with a conviction, and five of them were halted by prosecutors.

A review of his court files and interviews with prosecutors shows some of the complications.

No information could be located about the two oldest cases, both attempted-murder charges from 1999. They were dropped by prosecutors at the District Court level.

In 2000, police accused Henderson of a nonfatal shooting. But the victim, a childhood friend of his, told prosecutors that they had the wrong man. That case was made inactive when the prosecutor moved it to the court's "stet" docket.

Two years later, Henderson was on trial, accused of using a handgun in a shootout that left one man dead and two others wounded.

The survivors changed their stories at the trial, Assistant State's Attorney Jennifer Sites recalled, although jurors heard their police statements from the time of the shooting. A gun found in Henderson's house was linked to the crime scene, she said.

The jury acquitted him of all charges.

In May 2004, Henderson and another man were parked in a stolen Chevy Cavalier, according to charging documents. A search of the car turned up a .357 Magnum revolver, police said. But on Dec. 15, 2004, a city judge ruled that search illegal, suppressing the gun as evidence. The prosecutor dropped the case.

A search of Henderson's residence in November 2005 turned up a gun. But charges couldn't go forward because prosecutors couldn't prove which of the house's several residents it belonged to, prosecutors said.

This year's cases are still being investigated. Henderson was arrested Jan. 17 on suspicion of using a firearm during drug trafficking and on June 8 on charges of having a handgun in his vehicle.

A court hearing in the latter case is scheduled for this month. He does not have an attorney listed in his court file.

Before GunStat, information about repeat gun defendants was passed along anecdotally, said acting police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, making it harder to focus enforcement.

But Jessamy, the city's top prosecutor, says GunStat comes with major problems. For example, the summary data do not explain why prosecutors dropped or made inactive 48 of 75 gun cases.

Some reasons are common: defendants being indicted federally, police officers failing to appear for court, illegal police searches and uncooperative witnesses.

That kind of omission, Jessamy said, could give the public a false impression of the work her prosecutors do.

"What they're attempting to say is that we're not getting people convicted," Jessamy said. "They're reaching inaccurate conclusions. I don't know anybody in the prosecutor's office who isn't working hard."

City officials defend GunStat, saying that, like CityStat and ComStat - other data-gathering projects - collecting information is in itself useful.

"The data is what it is," said Sheryl Goldstein, director of the mayor's Office on Criminal Justice, who helped conceive GunStat. "It's not meant as a judgment. It's meant to inform."

Goldstein said that the GunStat database is assembled by a civilian police employee. Defendants' names are gathered by a query of the court computer system that flags defendants charged with felony gun crimes. The police employee then researches each defendant's background, parole and probation status, where the new arrest took place and what gun was seized.

The employee follows up by checking the defendant's bail status and the case as it progresses through court.

At the most recent GunStat meeting, Goldstein said bails for gun crime defendants had risen in the three months of data collection.

Arrested for a handgun violation April 28, Frank Blackwell made his $200,000 bail and was released from jail. Arrested for a second handgun violation July 16, he's being held without bail.

Bealefeld, the acting police commissioner, says that GunStat is about "getting our house in order" in terms of all agencies treating gun crimes seriously. And, he said, "it's about uncovering some of these guys" before they are charged with murder.

He points to the case of Perry Simms, who was arrested Jan. 25 and charged with handgun violations. Simms pleaded guilty June 7 to illegal possession of a firearm. He was sentenced to five years - but all but four years, 11 months and 23 days was suspended.

On June 30, Paul Cornish was shot to death. Simms is charged with first-degree murder.

"We want to focus our energies on this group of people," Bealefeld said about the GunStat roster. "We need to get to these guys and say, 'We know you're out here.'"

julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

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