FBI aids local police with high-tech tools But street smarts sometimes lacking

February 03, 1992|By David Simon

Donald Kincaid still can remember when his supervisor in the Baltimore Police Department paired him with an FBI agent, then sent him out to West Baltimore to search for a murder witness.

"This guy has been avoiding us for about a week," recalls Mr. Kincaid, a retired homicide detective. "And, when we catch the guy out on the street, this agent starts in with, 'Excuse me, sir, if we could just " Mr. Kincaid's tale goes on: The agent almost apologizes to the reluctant witness, addresses him politely and offers to intercede with the man's boss if the visit to FBI headquarters should take too much time.

"The agent is even promising to pay lost wages," says Mr. Kincaid. "I can't take it anymore. I grab the guy by the neck and tell him to get in the car."

Mr. Kincaid's story about the FBI's lack of street-level expertise is worth remembering as the bureau turns its attention to inner-city violence, assigning agents to work with police in Baltimore and Prince George's County. For, if Mr. Kincaid's account showed the bureau's weak spots, the murder investigation in which he joined also showed its strengths.

The local FBI office mustered all its considerable resources in that 1985 case -- which involved the killing of a federal informant -- and it was solved quickly.

"The best thing about the FBI is that they've got tools and people and money," says one city homicide detective. "If they come, they should bring all their toys with them."

Those "toys" range from computer resources and fully equipped crime laboratories to extra manpower and clerical help, to unmarked cars and multi-channel radios -- services and items in short supply for the Baltimore Police Department.

For example, the city homicide unit, contending with a soaring murder rate, lacks any computerized methodology for matching shootings by bullet caliber, by location, or by drug group. And, although New York drug traffickers have descended on Baltimore corners in recent years, there has been little systematic effort to gather intelligence on the trend.

Likewise, there is no money to retain informants, and few unmarked cars assigned to the homicide unit. Crime lab submissions are months behind.

"There's an impression that we're having trouble handling all the fresh murders," says the homicide supervisor. "Actually, we're OK with the current workload. It's more that we have trouble getting back to older cases or gathering information about drug groups in any organized way. That's where [the FBI] can really have an impact."

Since the mid-1980s, the city's FBI office has had a relatively small role in countering the rising tide of drug-related violence in the Baltimore area and Prince George's County.

One reason: a national strategy that urged FBI field offices to concentrate on drug cases involving Mafia, Colombian cartel or political connections. In Maryland, where Mafia and Colombian activity is limited, the approach was hardly relevant.

Critics say a lack of FBI expertise in drug enforcement or street-level enforcement remains a problem. The bureau has long focused on attacking white-collar crime, counterintelligence and political corruption, but responded reluctantly when ordered into the drug war by President Reagan in 1982.

Locally, that reluctance was made apparent by FBI officials over the last several years. During the brief tenure of Joseph V. Corless, special agent in charge of the office until last year, the FBI's local narcotics squad was effectively gutted, with the best drug agents transferred to other units.

Now the climate has changed.

"I'm committed to this as a priority," says Special-Agent-in-Charge Bobby R. Gillham, who replaced Agent Corless last summer and is getting high marks with agents in the Baltimore office who felt frustrated by his predecessor's policies. "What we're trying to find out now is how best we can help, how best we can work with local departments."

Agent Gillham will be reassigning 10 agents and a supervisor to work with Baltimore-area detectives on drug-related violence that sent the city's homicide toll over 300 for the second straight year. A comparable number will be assigned to Prince George's and Washington.

The redeployment is a cold war "peace dividend" of sorts, with FBI officials planning to reassign about 325 agents from counterintelligence duties, freeing up manpower for joint task forces in Baltimore, Washington, Atlanta and Dallas.

Joining the local effort will be federal Treasury agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, who will work alongside FBI agents and local detectives in Baltimore and the Washington suburbs. Agent Gillham said six to eight ATF agents will be assigned to the Baltimore task force.

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