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Witness to a crime may be told it never happened

The Baltimore Sun

Residents hear gunshots. It stands to reason they want to know what happened.

It's not an easy task.

People near Canton Square woke earlier this week to the sound of men arguing. They heard three rapid pops, and some looked out their windows and saw two men walking down the street, one holding a gun.

One person looked in the newspaper the next day and, finding nothing, e-mailed The Baltimore Sun and then sought help from the Baltimore Guide.

That prompted calls to Baltimore police and an e-mail exchange that ended with more confusion than answers. It turns out the shooting was not really a shooting, according to police, but a discharging, and required no formal report. No one was hit, and the intended targets didn't hang around to talk with officers. All they left behind was shattered glass and bullet casings at South Potomac and O'Donnell streets.

"Unfortunately there are a lot of them," said Donny Moses, a spokesman for the city police, referring to calls for shots fired. "If we get there and don't find anything, we aren't writing a report."

The problem is not the lack of a police report. The crime isn't hidden; it's recorded in the police computers, and in this case, appears to have been accurately described and categorized. But it won't show up on the Baltimore Police Department's public Internet crime map because that lists shootings and assaults, among other serious crimes, but not the discharging of firearms.

It's so minor it probably wouldn't make the list of crimes that officers give out for police blotters in the Guide and The Baltimore Sun. And a call to police by residents curious about what happened prompts a cursory check and the initial response that nothing happened.

That fuels rumors and leads people to conclude police are under-reporting or downgrading crime. The reporter for the Guide, Mary Helen Sprecher, had trouble confirming the incident. She e-mailed the person who had contacted her: "Just checked with the police. There hasn't been a report of a shooting in this jurisdiction this week."

The person, who did not want to be identified for fear of retribution from the gunmen who are still on the street, heard the argument and the gunfire and walked to the crime scene when police arrived. The person e-mailed me after trying in vain to get police to confirm it: "In this case, I guess it never happened."

Classifying crime can be subjective, and supervisors re-read police reports and can upgrade, say, a break-in to a burglary. It matters because the more serious crime is what police use to measure the safety of the city and judge their own performance.

It also determines how the incident is investigated. The Baltimore Sun police reporter Justin Fenton wrote last week that the bullets recovered from a January shooting at a gas station at Northwood Plaza came from the same gun used in last month's fatal shooting of former City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr.

But police who investigated the gas station shooting classified it as a property crime rather than an attempted armed robbery, saying there was no evidence the shooters said anything to the clerk indicating it was a holdup. You can't discern intent, but I think the bullet hole in the protective glass indicates this deserved a higher classification than one used to describe broken mailboxes on Halloween.

Moses pulled the 911 calls on the Canton incident. Four people called to report the shooting at O'Donnell and South Potomac.

The first, at 2:39 a.m., reported three gunshots and men arguing in the street. The person told the dispatcher he saw two men walking, one holding a gun, near John's Carryout. The second call, at the same time, reported gunshots and people arguing.

Three minutes later, another caller to 911 reported that a black Chevy Tahoe truck with tinted windows was being shot at. The fourth caller said people were shooting at him from a Chevrolet Suburban.

There are too many crimes and calls for help for police to spend days researching every gunshot and every 911 call for curious residents. At the same time, the sound of gunshots near someone's home can be at the very least discomforting, and it's not good enough to simply say it's Baltimore and gunfire is part of the city's background noise.

What's wrong with police providing a list or a map of crime that updates every 24 hours, with a sentence or two on what occurred? It would certainly help put a stop to rumors and maybe even help police quell accusations that they are shoving crime under Baltimore's concrete carpet.

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