During Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison’s first week on the job last year, a top aide sent him a short, casual email: “For reading whenever you have a chance.”
Attached was a detailed report — marked “NOT FOR DISSEMINATION” — that in staid language made clear that the city’s homicide unit was highly dysfunctional, ineffective and in need of immediate reform.
There were too few detectives with too little training, supervision and equipment. And they had more cases than they could handle. Instead of catching killers, they were placing unsolved investigations on the back burner within a matter of weeks, with no effective process for dealing with the cold cases that inevitably piled up.
“Given Baltimore’s recent rise in homicides, it is more important than ever that these crimes be investigated thoroughly and according to best practices,” the report read.
Solving cases was critical, it said, not only to bring perpetrators to justice but to "help prevent future homicides by eliminating repeat offenders and reducing retaliation killings.”
A well-respected law enforcement think tank had produced the taxpayer-funded report in 2016 to help reverse a worrying decline in solved cases.
But instead of implementing the plans, the Baltimore Police Department mostly sat on them — and kept them from the public — as it churned through three police commissioners and the city racked up another thousand homicides. In the process, the department’s rate of solving cases tumbled even lower, to roughly half the national average for cities of Baltimore’s size.
“The mandate to implement the recommendations wasn’t always carried from leader to leader," said Harrison, who in March 2019 was sworn in as the city’s fourth commissioner in as many years. He spoke about the Police Executive Research Forum report after agreeing to release it to The Baltimore Sun in response to a public records request that his predecessors had denied.
Now Harrison, who sits on PERF’s executive board, says he’s using the report as a blueprint for improvements to the city police department’s once-vaunted homicide unit. He has begun making changes, including adding two squads to the unit, bringing the total in normal rotation to eight.
But he acknowledges that there is much more to be done and says that will be a challenge. He says the department’s resources are already stretched thin despite a nearly half-billion-dollar budget.
“Murder is the most shocking to the conscience of all crimes, so it is extremely important," Harrison said. "I just don’t have the luxury of only focusing on homicide. ...
"I have to focus on non-fatal shooting cases, robbery cases, burglary cases, theft cases, arsons and rapes and everything in between — and drug dealing. There is a lot we need to do.”
For the families of homicide victims, such explanations are infuriating.
Jessica Thomas, whose 19-year-old son, Justin Lewis, was fatally shot in December, arrived at the hospital just in time to see him take his last breath. She has been desperate for answers since. But several months later, with the detective assigned to her son’s case also juggling others, she worries that the wait will be “never-ending."
“When is he going to have the time to come back to me to talk to me about my son’s murder, or investigate my son’s murder, when there are constant killings in the city?” she asked.
Victims’ families say it is devastating to watch cases go unsolved, and they resent that police officials haven’t focused more directly on the issue. The department declines to say how many cold cases it has on the books, but acknowledges it’s a large number.
From 2015 to 2019, a stunning 1,660 people were killed in Baltimore. Just 654 cases were solved, a five-year clearance rate of less than 40%.
The average clearance rate for similarly sized cities in 2018 was nearly 58%, according to the most recent FBI data. Baltimore’s was less than 43% that year.
And last year Baltimore’s clearance rate was a dismal 31%. The rate includes cases cleared for reasons other than arrests, such as when suspects are killed themselves. Only 89 people were actually arrested for homicide last year, when Baltimore had 348 homicides.
Meanwhile, convictions for murder in Baltimore Circuit Court were even fewer, with just 83 last year, according to data provided by Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s office.
Thomas, now her grandson’s caregiver, marks the anniversary of her son’s killing each month by calling the homicide unit for an update. It is “the only time I hear from them," she said.
Once she was told the detective wasn’t available to chat, too busy working another case. The month before that, Thomas said, the detective peppered her with questions, asking if she had any new information, as if she were the one meant to be gathering evidence.
“I feel like these cases are forgotten," she said. “I cannot trust the fact that they are going to figure out his case at all.”
Too many cases
Harrison says the city’s homicide unit is staffed with talented, experienced detectives committed to seeking justice. The main problem, he says, is that that there have not been enough of them.
For instance, in 2014, homicide detectives were taking the lead on an average of four new homicide cases per year, and had an average individual clearance rate of 46%. The next year, they were handling eight new cases each — and their average clearance rate had dropped to 22%.
“Detectives told the PERF assessment team that, although they would prefer to investigate each open homicide case to completion, their caseloads often require them to put older cases on the ‘back burner’ after just a few weeks in order to handle the influx of new cases,” the report said.
It recommended a sharp staff increase to reduce the average caseload to six or fewer per lead detective per year. But that never happened. According to a separate staffing study published in 2018, the average number of cases per detective remained at 8.5 in 2016, and 7.6 in 2017.
Beyond the staffing, the unit was a disorganized mess, the report found.
The researchers found no clear policies and procedures for conducting investigations. There were no formal standards determining who would be promoted into the unit. Detectives did not get careful supervision to ensure critical investigative steps were being completed in every case.
Informal trickle-down training between veteran detectives and rookies wasn’t being supplemented by any formal training. The scheduling system didn’t take into consideration peak times for killings, leaving the case load unequally distributed among individual homicide squads working different shifts.
At one point during the review, detectives suggested that their clearance rate would be higher if it weren’t for prosecutors in Mosby’s office refusing to authorize arrest warrants in as many as 45 cases the homicide unit felt were ready to be charged. But PERF investigators concluded that the cases often lacked critical information.
“Many of the cases were poorly documented and demonstrated a lack of thorough follow up, though several cases had a viable suspect and a high probability of closure with additional investigative work," they wrote.
The report noted that some of the needed upgrades would require time, but others could and should be implemented immediately.
Instead, in the midst of a sustained surge in killings, at a time when the city was still reeling from the deat h of Freddie Gray from injuries received in custody and the subsequent unrest and rioting of 2015, the report was largely ignored, said Stanley Brandford, who oversaw the homicide unit at the time.
“The guys were so stressed, I don’t think anybody really paid attention to it," he said. “It went by the wayside."
Former Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, who ran the department when the report was issued, said some key improvements were made during his tenure. But he said the department faced a flood of other demands, including from the city’s consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department.
“Were we poised to implement all of those recommendations? No," Davis said in a recent interview.
“At the same time we needed more detectives in homicide, we were rightfully being advised that we needed more detectives in Internal Affairs, and we needed more trainers at the training academy, and we needed more officers in patrol. It was drinking through a fire hose.”
Davis was fired in January 2018 amid sustained high levels of violent crime, including killings. He was replaced by Darryl DeSousa, who lasted less than four months before stepping down amid federal tax evasion charges that ultimately landed him in prison.
The problems in the homicide unit festered and compounded.
Keonna Porter’s 18-year-old son, Keontay, was killed just three days after Thomas’ son, the latest of Porter’s family members lost to gun violence. The year before, her 20-year-old niece, Deiveon Carter, was gunned down early Thanksgiving morning.
Carter’s killing remains unsolved, according to police. Detectives have told Porter that they believe the person responsible for killing her son has since been killed himself, allowing them to close the case. But she doesn’t believe them.
“I just feel like they don’t care. They are going to push this under the rug because he is gone," she said, choking back tears.
Porter has taken to sending detectives screenshots of information she has gathered on her own, not knowing how else to cope.
“It is just one of the hardest things to deal with in life," she said, “to have to bury your child.”
Harrison said problems were allowed to linger for far too long, but improvements are now underway, with the PERF report as a guide.
Since last summer, the department has added 14 homicide positions — a dozen detectives and two sergeants — and reduced the average number of cases per lead detective to 6.6 in 2019, Harrison said. Sgt. Mike Mancuso, president of the police union, disputes that figure, saying some veteran detectives still carry far more.
Currently in the works, and due to be completed in August, is a complete rewrite of the standard operating procedures and general orders for the homicide unit, which will lead to many smaller improvements down the line, Harrison said. A formal investigative training is also being developed for detectives, to be provided on a rolling basis in coming years.
“I want to make sure that our people have the skill set, to make sure that they know how to look, they know how to ask, and they know how to make a compelling argument to make people want to cooperate,” Harrison said. “That’s an art and a science that I want to make sure our people have.”
Harrison has also introduced a formal system for evaluating detectives and selecting who is promoted to homicide, a new checklist for supervisors to more meticulously review case quality, and a new schedule aimed at better distributing cases among detectives.
He has also expanded on changes introduced by Davis to improve the working relationship with Mosby’s office, including through a case analyst embedded in the state’s attorney’s office to help improve rejected cases and increase convictions.
The department is still considering how best to implement other recommendations, including to improve the cold case unit and develop protocols for patrol officers who respond to homicides, to ensure they secure scenes, identify witnesses and collect evidence correctly.
Officials are also in the process of selecting a vendor to build a new case management system to replace the nearly half-century-old one used today, which Harrison said will “exponentially increase our capacity to move faster and be more efficient.”
Chuck Wexler, PERF’s executive director, said his agency has conducted homicide assessments in 10 cities in recent years, and the path to improvement almost always involves “basic kinds of things like proper training, proper supervision, equipment and leadership."
After significant turnover at the top in Baltimore, Wexler said, Harrison — whom PERF recommended to become the city’s commissioner — will get the job done.
“Baltimore has been challenged in the past, but now I think you have in place a leadership team that will take this report seriously and make the changes that are necessary,” Wexler said.
Others think the problems run deeper.
In February, a Baltimore judge ruled that attorneys for the family of a deceased man found to have spent 17 years in prison before being exonerated of murder charges had painted “a compelling picture" of a police department that for decades had "turned a blind eye to the conduct of its officers in murder investigations.”
The ruling could lead to a deep probing of past cases, with police officials deposed to expose untold problems in the unit.
Questions about detectives’ work have cropped up in other recent murder cases, too, including some in which prosecutors simply declined to call the lead detectives to the witness stand.
In 2019, Mosby’s office dropped 14% of homicide cases, while prosecutors had an 82% conviction rate for cases that went to court, including plea deals, according to records. Mosby would not answer questions about the quality of detectives’ work and its impact on her cases, though her office said some cases it declined to prosecute were referred to the U.S. attorney.
Mancuso, who served in the homicide unit for nearly 15 years before becoming president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3 in 2018, said detectives in the unit agree with many of the PERF-driven changes, including the addition of personnel, training and technology.
Their biggest complaint, he said, is an unrelated change Harrison introduced.
The squad used to routinely put in up to 3,000 hours of overtime every two weeks chasing down leads and trying to solve their cases, Mancuso said. That number was slashed in July, after Harrison implemented a new overtime policy preventing officers from working more than 32 overtime hours per week.
Mancuso says the result has been that homicide detectives have had to take days off during critical points in their investigations.
“We’ve got our premier detectives not able to work their cases the way they want to. That’s huge,” Mancuso said. “They’re frustrated. They don’t want to have low clearance rates.”
Lindsey Eldridge, a spokeswoman for Harrison, said he stands by the policy, which was implemented “not only for officer wellness, but for accountability and oversight.”
Baltimore Sun research librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.
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