Police eyeing ways to arrest disorderly storage of evidence

March 17, 1991|By Ann LoLordo

The gorilla's days are numbered.

Dusty and dog-eared, the 3-foot stuffed ape sits in a locked warehouse in the basement of the Baltimore Police Department. The big Magilla should have been sold last June, along with other abandoned property the department routinely auctions off to clear the cluttered shelves of its evidence control section.

But the police apparently thought it wasn't worth the effort, so the monkey sits destined for a trash bin big enough to hold it. And for now, the gorilla remains a fitting reminder of the primal way the city police collect, store and keep track of the thousands of pieces of evidence of Baltimore's crimes that come their way each month.

The property section was among the areas that Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke suggested last week would benefit from a "dramatic upgrading" of the department's technology. Currently, the police must catalog and track crime-scene evidence and other lost and found property that comes to them at a rate of more than 120 submissions per day -- 47,276 last year -- and they must do it all by hand.

Concerned by a public perception that Baltimore is unsafe, Mr. Schmoke said he wanted to step up the city's crime-fighting efforts. Improving the Police Department's technology is part of that plan, although the mayor concedes the city on its own could not afford to pay for the improvements. If additional funding could be found, the city would have a myriad of choices at a range of costs.

For example, police in St. Petersburg, Fla., use lap-top computers to write reports. In Suffolk County, N.Y., a computer can tell police in seconds how many .22-caliber, semiautomatic handguns are stored in their property room.

And in Dallas, the patrol cars are equipped with cellular telephones.

"Certainly, there is a very significant move toward automation by law enforcement throughout the nation," said David J. Roberts, deputy director of SEARCH Group Inc., a California-based consortium that researches new technologies used by police. "Recent developments in microcomputers and the ability to link those computers to state and national databases have enabled even the smallest police department to automate."

Despite Mayor Schmoke's concerns that some Baltimore police technology is antiquated and not up to the standards of a big-city police department, the city police possess two key law enforcement technological tools -- a computer-assisted dispatch system and an automated fingerprint identification system -- that are easily state-of-the-art.

The dispatch system allows police to identify automatically the address from which a 911 call is being made, to dispatch the nearest car quickly and to alert the officer to any previous problems there. The fingerprint system can search through a library of fingerprints and give police a list of possible suspects based on a set of prints that has been fed into the computer.

"Computers do in a fraction of seconds what humans would do" in hours, said Harwood W. Burritt, deputy city police commissioner and head of the department's information management bureau.

"Law enforcement is big business, and when it comes to information technology, we receive the same benefits that big business does when they automate, and it puts us in a [better] position to deliver services to the public and maybe with less people," he said.

In the past two years, the city Police Department also has upgraded the computer-generated equipment that identifies the quality and purity of drugs seized by detectives. The machinery that has reduced from two weeks to about two days the time it takes to analyze such evidence, said Thomas M. Muller, who works in the department's crime lab. A special electron microscope that analyzes tiny paint chips or fibers also was purchased, he said.

The city's technological capability to match fingerprints of suspects with those of known criminals will be increased significantly in June when the state's enhanced $14.2-million fingerprint identification system comes on line. Police in the city and Baltimore, Howard, Anne Arundel, Prince George's and Montgomery counties will have special terminals in their departments that will give them access to the state's fingerprint file for about 700,000 criminals. The service will cost them nothing.

If Baltimore officials want to inspect other advanced technologies, they only need go as far as the Towson headquarters of Baltimore County police.

The county served as the test site for a special computer that can suggest possible burglary suspects based on crime-scene information and other evidence. The system, which can cost between $25,000 to $50,000, is now being used in four other cities across the country.

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