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Baltimore to undergo federal review of homicide unit

Police Commissioner Batts announces new grant to provide the Homicide Unit with more training that police believe help close murder cases.

In an effort to solve more of Baltimore's homicide cases, police said a dozen experts will visit the city homicide unit to examine how detectives investigate killings, part of a grant the department has received from the U.S. Department of Justice.

The announcement by Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts on Monday followed a particularly violent weekend in which three people were killed, including Steven Jackson, 29, the nephew of City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young. That brought Baltimore's homicide total this year to 54, eight more than at this time last year.

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Baltimore's homicide clearance rate so far this year is 53.7 percent, which is higher than its average over the past four years of 47.6 percent, police said. The national clearance rate for cities of Baltimore's size was about 57.2 percent in 2013.

The homicide clearance rate, a statistic police report annually to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, measures the number of cases closed in relation to the total number of killings.

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Baltimore is one of six cities being selected for the Homicide Investigation Enhancement, Training and Technical Assistance Project. The other five cities have yet to be named. Baltimore police did not disclose the amount of the grant.

The Police Executive Research Forum, an independent Washington, D.C., law enforcement think tank, will send a group of local and national researchers and practitioners to Baltimore to spend several months studying the city Police Department and make recommendations.

Chuck Wexler, the research forum's executive director, said the program — which will begin within a month — will provide a "comprehensive" review of "policies, directives, reports and other data."

"What we're looking at is how to work with the Baltimore Police Department to assist them in developing best practices in homicide investigation," he said.

Baltimore Police Deputy Commissioner Kevin Davis said homicides are among the most difficult crimes to solve because a detective cannot speak with the victim. "It makes it particularly challenging at times to reach the closures that our victims deserve and their families deserve," Davis said.

"The experts that are coming will look at how we conduct our investigations, the type of training that our detectives receive. ... Essentially every aspect of a homicide investigation, from the first notification to the last day of testimony, will be under investigation to see how we can improve," Davis said.

Wexler said Baltimore police should be commended for inviting a review that could reveal policy or procedural flaws.

"Baltimore is one of those cities that has issues with violent crime and has seen progress over the years and wants to improve itself," he said. "Homicide is an issue in every city. Baltimore is to be recognized for opening themselves up to outside researchers. This is the way cities improve."

It's the second time Batts has requested federal oversight of the department, after he invited a Department of Justice review of officers' use of force last year. He said he doesn't consider the repeated requests for outside help a sign of failure in his agency.

"In every organization I've gone to, I've brought outside best practices into the organization," Batts said. "It doesn't say my team is not proficient. It doesn't say we can't do it in-house. But when you're driving 75 mph, it's very hard to change the tires. It's always good to bring people in who have the time to sit back and take a look.

"If you don't think you can get better, or if you're arrogant enough to think you can't improve, that's a mistake."

Police have not closed any of this weekend's killings. Batts said during the news conference that they were still investigating the killing of Young's nephew.

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