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Fingerprint lab dust-up offers latest evidence of broken city government | COMMENTARY

Ken Phillips. a supervisor of Baltimore Police crime lab’s fingerprint section, has spoken out about the backlog of evidence going untested in thousands of cases. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun)
Ken Phillips. a supervisor of Baltimore Police crime lab’s fingerprint section, has spoken out about the backlog of evidence going untested in thousands of cases. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun) (Kenneth K. Lam)

It is no secret that Baltimore residents who suffer property crimes — a burglary or car break-in, for example — aren’t likely to end up with more than a brief visit from a uniformed officer who will offer sympathy and a routine police report suitable for an insurance claim.

Some of that is surely to be expected in a city where violent crime is the far more pressing problem. But now it appears there’s another factor involved: Thousands of fingerprints taken from such crime scenes have done little more than gather dust at the city’s crime lab. That’s according to whistleblower Ken Phillips and a former lab supervisor who spoke with The Sun’s Justin Fenton because, they say, higher-ups have largely ignored their concerns.

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The good news is that these allegations are being taken seriously by at least some on the Baltimore City Council, including Mark Conway, who chairs the public safety committee and is pressing the Baltimore Police Department for answers. While any crime lab is likely to engage in some form of triage, giving higher priority to more important cases, it appears Baltimore’s accomplishes less than many of its peers. The BPD’s property crime closure rate is 3.6%, while the national average is 10%. That suggests that all those technicians who show up at property crime scenes to dust for prints are either auditioning for roles in the next “CSI: Las Vegas” TV sequel or maybe just doing it for practice. Either way, city taxpayers aren’t getting much return on investment.

And that, sadly, continues to be a recurring theme for Baltimore: Are the residents getting the services they paid for and deserve? The police department’s generous use of overtime, including the recently-discontinued practice of double-dipping by allowing officers on vacation to also pull overtime shifts, provides just one recent example of questionable spending. But the police are hardly alone in this regard. How does anyone working in the Baltimore City Department of Public Works not cringe at the mention of water meters? A recent study outlined chronic problems with billing and meter repair, including work orders a year or more old. It’s hard to know what is worse: the old water billing system, which frequently makes errors, or the new digital one, which frequently makes errors. It would all be laughable if it did not involve tens of millions of dollars.

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There was a time when Baltimore-based forensic labs were considered among the nation’s best. But that reputation was sullied long before last May when Dr. David R. Fowler, Maryland’s retired longtime chief medical examiner, showed up at the Derek Chauvin trial in Minneapolis to make some questionable claims about the death of George Floyd. Nor is it breaking news to recognize that Baltimore’s basic infrastructure suffers from decades of neglect, a product of past mayors and council members doing their own budgetary version of triage and ultimately underfunding things like water and sewer line replacements. It’s also no surprise that finances are tight in a city burdened with high concentrations of poverty. But then, making matters worse are layers of bad choices like the especially woeful red light and speed camera systems that routinely ticketed the innocent (including owners of parked cars) until the contractor was sent packing in 2013.

Brandon Scott is perfectly aware of this legacy, and given that he’s still in his first year as mayor (sorry, but City Council members and even presidents have far less authority to address such shortcomings), it’s still too early to lay the blame at his feet. But make no mistake, city government has to be smarter. Mr. Scott promised to restore trust in government. As much as the COVID-19 pandemic has made this goal all the more elusive — and yes, reducing the homicide rate still tops the to-do list — city government can’t keep shooting itself in the foot and expect positive feedback. Each mini scandal reduces faith in City Hall, wastes precious tax dollars and sends a message to those who might seek to live or open a business here: Stay away.

Somebody smashes a car window and grabs the contents of your glove box? Maybe it’s not reasonable to expect the culprit will be brought to justice, short of a signed confession left behind on the driver’s seat. But expecting fingerprints to be processed for any property crime only if “you know somebody in the police department,” as Roy Jones, a retired fingerprint examiner, alleges, is unacceptable. The standards of city government need to be raised much higher before already-low public confidence will be lost entirely.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.

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