MURDERS' COLD TRAIL

The Baltimore Sun

More than a month after former city councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. was murdered, his case remains unsolved - highlighting a nagging problem for Baltimore police.

Despite a sharp drop in homicides this year, city police are solving murders at the second-lowest rate in 28 years, according to a Sun analysis of police and FBI statistics. In the 1980s, the department routinely solved more than 70 percent of its cases, but so far this year, the rate is 45 percent.

The steady decline in the department's record of catching killers has left hundreds of homicides unresolved. Among them: Nancy Schmidt, a 74-year-old retiree who was stabbed in her Remington home on April 21, and Jerrel Brown, a 31-year-old transgender prostitute who was shot in his home in the 3000 block of W. North Ave. on Jan. 8.

"It's very difficult for parents because we want to protect the next kid, and we can't because they're not solving [cases]," said Fran Sirbaugh, 57, whose daughter, Keri, 21, was found beaten and strangled steps from her Northeast Baltimore apartment in 1995.

The case is now in the hands of the homicide unit's cold case squad.

"I'm not satisfied," said Maj. Terrence McLarney, who took command in July of the city's homicide unit, which has more than 70 people. He would like to see the clearance rate about 15 points higher but pointed out that police are finding other ways to lock up homicide suspects when they can't secure murder charges.

The nation's homicide clearance rate has been declining gradually, but until the mid-1990s, Baltimore's prominent homicide unit performed above average. Now Baltimore's rate is about 10 percentage points below last year's national average for cities of its size.

Detectives, commanders and experts say the reasons for the decline are complex. But they boil down to a homicide unit that was badly damaged by an exodus of veteran talent in the mid-1990s and the subsequent growth of a "stop snitching" culture, said David Kennedy, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

Three years ago, Baltimore's epidemic of uncooperative witnesses became national news with the release of an underground video, Stop Snitching, in which a parade of criminals from the city's drug trade made explicit a long-unspoken culture of silence.

"The stop-snitching momentum, which stands in opposition to law enforcement's ability to investigate and prosecute crimes, is swamping the beneficial impact of the lower homicide rate," said Kennedy, who studied crime patterns in Baltimore in the late 1990s. "Yes, there are dramatically fewer [cases] to investigate. But you still need witnesses. You still need juries that will convict."

Bob Cherry, the incoming president of the department's police union and a homicide detective since 1999, said that often leaves investigators short. Detectives have access to information from federal prosecutors, supervisors, beat cops, specialized gang and intelligence units, a program that continuously monitors and maps crime, and new efforts to track guns - making it "very rare" that they don't know who committed a murder, Cherry said.

"But if witnesses in the community aren't willing to come forward and say, 'That's the person in the photo array,' and they aren't willing to tell that to a jury, then we just can't seal the deal," he said. "When it involves gang members, it can take you seven hours just getting them to admit they were even out there, let alone who did the shooting."

McLarney said that when he first joined the homicide unit in 1981, he would go to a murder scene and return to a pile of phone messages at the office - some anonymous and some not.

"The community was far more forthcoming," the major said. "People in the drug culture have begun over the years to tolerate murder."

At a recent community meeting in the Northeast District, police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III implored residents to come forward with information about the Harris slaying. Angry and frustrated, Bealefeld said that he was nearly certain the killers lived nearby but that only two calls had come from the neighborhood.

"I want to be flooded with phone calls about every dog fight and pot smoker in the neighborhood," Bealefeld said, raising his voice almost to a shout. "These kids likely live in the neighborhood because they ran from there. They didn't get into a helicopter and fly to Pennsylvania."

Reluctant witnesses also used to hamper homicide detectives in Richmond, Va., once dubbed "Murder City." But no more. Richmond posted a 116 percent clearance rate last year, which can happen when police solve old cases.

Former Richmond Chief Rodney Monroe, who now leads Charlotte's department, said he hired a community advocate to begin mending the department's relationship with the public. She organized candlelight vigils after each slaying and helped spark outrage over the violence. He said tips began coming into the advocate.

Homicides in Richmond peaked at 160 cases in 1994, while Baltimore suffered 282 last year.

The decline in Baltimore's clearance rate began in the 1990s. At that time, a new police commissioner, Thomas C. Frazier, came to Baltimore from California and adopted a West Coast policing strategy. It involved rotating officers out of specialty units and putting veteran homicide detectives on patrol and in desk jobs, in part to open slots for women and minorities.

His theory was to build a well-rounded and egalitarian department, but many detectives "jumped before they were pushed," said Gary McLhinney, a former head of the police union.

Amid the exodus of veteran detectives, the clearance rate plummeted to its lowest point in nearly three decades in 1998. Frazier left to join the Justice Department the next year. The former commissioner declined to comment for this article.

In 1999, newly elected Mayor Martin O'Malley abolished the rotation policy on his second day in office.

The new commissioner, Ed Norris, rehired veteran detectives as consultants, using them to train and assist new detectives.

He also reversed the city's crime-fighting strategy, rejecting Frazier's idea of a police officer as a "social worker with a gun" and replacing it with aggressive - but, Norris insists, targeted - enforcement.

The department briefly returned to 1980s-era clearance levels, which Norris attributed to his attention to about 250 outstanding warrants for murder and attempted murder.

Under his "zero tolerance" policies, Norris said, when a murder occurred, he ordered officers to arrest anyone doing anything illegal in the area, from playing dice to smoking joints. Detectives would then interrogate those people for information about the homicide.

The zero-tolerance approach later came under criticism for fracturing relations with the community. Norris said the practice was taken too far by his successors; the number of criminal cases in the city increased by nearly 20,000 the fiscal year after he left the department.

Efforts to cut crime were also hampered by bad blood between police and prosecutors, particularly after O'Malley unleashed a profanity-laced tirade at State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy. She later became a public critic of the zero-tolerance policy.

"Their message was, 'These guys are really inept. No wonder people don't trust you,' " Norris said. "It became a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Jessamy said she never attacked the department but disagreed with police commanders on policy. "My position has always been that it's not the number of arrests that count; it's the quality of the arrests that count."

City police and the FBI define a case as "cleared" when there is an arrest or when the case is cleared by "exception," often when the killer has been killed.

After The Sun ran a 2002 series, Justice Undone, which documented repeated failures to obtain justice for murder victims, prosecutors began tightening their procedures.

Foremost among the changes was that Jessamy's office assumed power over charging murder suspects.

McLarney said he has about a dozen homicide cases in which he is ready to make an arrest, but the cases "are not prosecutable by most standards."

And he said that although disagreements with prosecutors can be fierce and frequent, the homicide unit "isn't going to be rushed into anything that will be detrimental to an eventual prosecution."

Cherry and McLarney said police are working around the stop-snitching culture by arresting homicide suspects on gun or drug charges.

Such efforts are not reflected in homicide clearance rates.

McLarney pointed to the case of Johnnie "JR" Butler, 33, who was arrested by city detectives and federal drug agents in a September raid targeting his heroin organization. Detectives, he said, believe that Butler has played a role in at least three homicides.

"You have to remember a lot of our [homicide] cases are drug-related," he said.

"You're going to have evidentiary issues in a lot of them. That's why we use our drug squads and federal partners, and we target people. There's no way for me to take those arrests and put them in [the homicide clearance rate], but people are going to jail."

calculating the clearance rate

The Baltimore police and Federal Bureau of Investigation's uniform crime reporting program use the same formula to calculate clearance rates. It is the number of homicide cases cleared in a calendar year divided by the total number of homicides recorded that year. Sometimes homicides aren't cleared until years after they occurred, so if a city solves older cases, it can achieve a clearance rate above 100 percent.

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