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Police also opposed sharing open cases with homicide commission, emails show

Interim Police Commissioner Kevin Davis has objected to sharing information about open homicide cases with the fledgling Homicide Review Commission.
Interim Police Commissioner Kevin Davis has objected to sharing information about open homicide cases with the fledgling Homicide Review Commission. (Lloyd Fox / The Baltimore Sun)

Top police commanders objected to sharing information about open homicide cases with a commission charged with identifying trends and root causes to try to stop the violence, siding with prosecutors in a behind-the-scenes debate that has become public in recent weeks.

Critics of withholding that information from the Baltimore Homicide Review Commission say the move undercuts the $200,000 interagency program's ability to identify real-time trends.

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Then-Deputy Commissioner Kevin Davis, who has since been appointed interim chief by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said, in the spring that sharing information from active investigations had "liability ramifications" for police and prosecutors, according to emails obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a public records request.

The issue has come to light as the city is confronting a record stretch of homicides this summer and officials roll out new cross-agency initiatives.

Davis recently said that he wants the commission to work while not jeopardizing ongoing investigations. The emails show that Davis concluded months ago that the commission should only look at closed and adjudicated murder investigations.

"We have real concerns that justice may be thwarted with unnecessary exposure to discovery and other issues that could impede our prosecutorial efforts," Davis wrote in an email to Johns Hopkins University Professor Daniel Webster, whom Rawlings-Blake had tapped to lead the commission.

Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, this month publicly criticized the decision to not share information about open cases, saying it "completely took the air out of the whole process." He placed the blame on Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby.

Mosby said she made the decision because she did not want to jeopardize cases against violent criminals or the safety of victims and witnesses by sharing information about open cases. She called Baltimore the "home of witness intimidation" and said the commission made "absolutely no sense."

Rawlings-Blake has defended the commission, saying similar homicide review panels have had success in other cities.

In an interview this week, Davis said he was most worried about complicating the prosecutorial process. For instance, he said, the commission's work on open cases could become evidence that prosecutors would need to turn over to defense attorneys. He also said that other academic initiatives studying closed cases have yielded results.

He said that his reservations had "nothing to do with leaks" and that he "never once" thought that commission members could somehow let information slip and compromise the safety of a witness.

According to the emails obtained by The Sun, Webster responded to Davis by writing that the ban on open cases would require "adjustments" and force a departure from the model in Milwaukee where the idea has been credited with helping to drive down the number of homicides. He also asked for clarification whether closed cases that are being appealed could be used, and whether any data points from open cases could be obtained.

Davis responded that cases under appeal could be used, but that no data from open cases would be provided.

"I'm confident the number of recently closed cases in Baltimore will accurately reflect the present status of our suspects, victims, and socio-economic conditions," he wrote.

Webster responded again, saying that the restrictions would "materially change the nature" of the program and that law enforcement partners would have little interest in "coming together to rehash old cases where things went well enough that someone was prosecuted successfully."

"The cases that haven't been adjudicated could be among the most important to understand the forces at play that make Baltimore's homicide rates unacceptably high," Webster wrote.

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He added that there "seem to be no city leaders invested" in the program.

Davis didn't budge.

"I am a bit confused, and am very sorry you are upset," he wrote in response. He wrote that it seemed that Webster had changed his mind since their meeting about the lack of open cases being a "deal breaker" for the commission.

"Please feel free to call me to further discuss, as I am afraid emails may project a tone that does not reflect the partnership that we (BPD and SAO) are more than willing to sustain with you," Davis wrote, referring to the Baltimore Police Department and state's attorney's office.

He then forwarded the exchange to Deputy State's Attorney Michael Schatzow. Schatzow responded six minutes later.

"What a jerk," he wrote of Webster. "I asked him 6 times why they needed information from open cases and he never gave an explanation. Let me know if you need me to communicate with the mayor or anyone in her office. Can you say passive-aggressive?"

Davis' response was brief: "Agree."

More than 200 people have been killed in Baltimore so far this year, a number not reached last year until December. The city had more than 40 homicides in both May and July, a record for two months in the same year.

The city has created a "war room" to bring together law enforcement agencies, and federal agents have embedded in the police homicide unit. These efforts come after other anti-violence programs have been beset by staff leaving, and in one case by the arrest of two staffers and seizure of drugs and guns at their offices.

The commission continues to operate, and participants are now expressing optimism.

Webster said in a statement that Davis "facilitated meetings with my team and the SAO to discuss the issue" and that they "agreed to pursue an alternative plan."

"We are focused now on moving forward in coordination with the Police Department and SAO to achieve the objectives of the program by reviewing available data to understand the causes of homicides in Baltimore and the impact of efforts to reduce homicides," Webster said.

Davis called the issue of withholding open case information "minutiae" that may have sparked tension, which has been resolved. "This tiny nugget is being over-represented as a game stopper," he said. "There has never been a game stopper."

He said that "tension can also be interpreted as passion" to resolve Baltimore's long-standing problems. "We don't always agree on the exact course of action," he said, "but we still go forward."

Kevin Harris, spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, said the mayor has always wanted a review commission that spurred dialogue between city agencies more than a "copy and paste" version of the Milwaukee model, which allows prosecutors to review open homicide cases.

"The only way that this commission works is if you have cooperation from all of the partners," Harris said. "If the state's attorney had issues of that magnitude, the mayor would not have directed the Police Department to have acted in a way that was counter to what the state's attorney's office was comfortable with."

While homicide cases can take months to years to get through the court system, police pointed to the track record of its Domestic Violence Fatality Review Team as proof that reviewing closed cases in a team-oriented, academic way can produce results.

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The team has identified specific indicators that violence may be imminent by talking to people convicted of domestic homicide and only willing to talk because their cases had already been adjudicated, said Capt. Ronda McCoy, who recently left her position as vice chair of the team. The number of outstanding domestic violence warrants also has been cut in half, she said.

"It's an untruth to say looking at closed cases does not meet good outcomes," she said.

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