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Solving fewer murders

The Baltimore Sun

There is a board in the homicide unit at Baltimore police headquarters that lists the year's murder victims. The names of victims written in black indicate closed cases; those in red remain unsolved. Right now, red is the predominant color, because the unit's clearance rate is less than 50 percent at a time when the still-unsolved slaying of former City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. has focused the attention of council members on the unit. But the difficulty the unit is having closing the Harris case is only a symptom of larger problems the department faces in its efforts to arrest suspected killers.

As reported by The Baltimore Sun this week, the Police Department's rate of clearing homicide cases so far this year is 45 percent, a significant decline from the 70 percent rate recorded in the 1980s. But the challenges facing homicide detectives today have changed compared with 20 years ago. The most serious has been the community's reluctance to help police. There are citizens who fear retaliation if they cooperate, and the city's well-documented incidents of witness intimidation underscore and reinforce those fears.

As troubling is the public's discomfort with police. It's an ongoing issue of trust that is not easily resolved despite Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III's presence in the community and at neighborhood functions.

In some ways, Baltimore police today are better equipped than ever to solve homicides. The department puts a greater emphasis on intelligence-gathering and reaches further down the crime chain to develop crucial data. District detectives routinely share useful information they are developing with colleagues at headquarters to solve homicides. The department has better technological resources on hand and strong partnerships with other law enforcement agencies that it plumbs for assistance.

A large percentage of Baltimore's murders are drug-related. But unlike the past, when drug organizations had their respective enforcers, numerous gangs and subsets of gangs operate in Baltimore today, which expands the pool of would-be assassins and the potential for mayhem.

Then there is the problem of Baltimore juries and their reluctance to convict. That has led city prosecutors to scrutinize more closely the evidence and witnesses developed by police. A recent study by the Abell Foundation found enough concerns about city juries to recommend establishing a regional jury system.

Commissioner Bealefeld's crime-fighting strategy, which targets the most violent offenders and benefits from the police's partnerships in law enforcement, has helped reduce the numbers of murders in Baltimore. His outreach to the community has been impressive. But he is one man, and restoring trust with Baltimore's residents must be the responsibility of every person on the force. Repairing that relationship will take time, but it is as critical to the city's future as it is to solving murders.

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