A police department in decline

February 06, 1994|By David Simon | David Simon,Sun Staff Writer Staff writer Gregory Kane contributed to this article.

First they stripped the city robbery unit, transferring one investigator after another into homicide in an effort to keep pace with Baltimore's murder rate. Where once there were 18 robbery detectives, by late last year there were only six.

Then the bank robberies began -- dozens of them. In desperation, the police command staff turned to the depleted sex offense unit, sending its lone supervisor into the robbery squad.

By November, that left exactly one detective to follow up on the more than 300 sexual assaults reported annually in Baltimore. Detective Dorothea Parker then went to her commander, Capt. John J. MacGillavery, telling him the situation was ridiculous, according to department sources. With a new case every workday, she had no time to interview victims or witnesses, no time to show suspect photos or identify a pattern of crimes. Women were being raped, and nothing was being done.

The captain agreed but could offer no immediate help.

"I guess you'll have to put on your roller skates," he reportedly told her.

This is the reality of the Baltimore Police Department, an agency that once prided itself on aggressive investigation and only five years ago posted arrest rates above national averages. Burdened by a lack of resources, devoted to strategies many veteran officers view as flawed and battered by record rates of violence and drug abuse, the department is watching its most essential function -- its ability to deter crime -- inexorably diminish.

From 1987 to 1992, total felony crime in Baltimore jumped by more than 37 percent to all-time levels, and in the first 10 months of 1993, the crime rate rose another 2.5 percent. While much of that can be attributed to a national cocaine epidemic, a proliferation of guns and other societal factors, city detectives and officers say much is also linked to the department's weakened investigative response.

"If you want to reduce the numbers of shootings, robberies and rapes," says one veteran detective, "you have to lock up some shooters, robbers and rapists. Most violent offenders are going to continue to do crimes until they're caught."

Yet the department now lags behind the national average in its arrest rate for life-threatening assaults and robberies, while the percentage of burglaries solved by the agency has fallen by almost a third since 1988. "No surprise there," says a former property crimes investigator. "Five years ago, there were more than 20 people in the burglary unit. Now it's down to seven."

The arrest rate for rape, too, has fallen by almost 10 percentage points in that same period and remains above the national average only because harried detectives routinely dismiss as unfounded dozens of sexual assault complaints that they have, in fact, been unable to adequately investigate, department sources say.

"It's really tragic what's happening in that unit," says Officer Jeanne Mewbourne, a veteran sex offense detective who now teaches at the police academy. "What does the department think one detective is going to do with that many cases? Even at full strength you only had four people there, and there were too many cases. Now, it's impossible."

In late December, the Police Department finally acted. They assigned a second investigator: "Look on the bright side," says one veteran commander in the criminal investigations division. "That's a 100 percent increase in manpower."

Cynicism aside, many in the department say the Baltimore Police Department's investigative function has been hollowed by attrition, neglect and competing priorities.

As the arrest rates fell, critics say, department leaders ignored the growing deficiencies in the investigative units and instead emphasized more visible programs: neighborhood service, foot patrols, bicycle squads, street-level drug sweeps -- any project in which police activity would be visible to politicians, community groups and merchant associations.

It didn't work. By last fall, the most notable victim of the failed strategy was Police Commissioner Edward V. Woods, who after four years was forced out by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke asindications of the police agency's problems began mounting. Nor is Mr. Schmoke spared the criticism of many veteran police commanders and officers.

"Schmoke made this mess," says one ranking commander. "Eddie Woods was his man."

Now the job of controlling Baltimore's runaway crime rate falls to the mayor's second choice, Deputy Chief Thomas C. Frazier of )) the San Jose, Calif., department, who is expected to be confirmed as Baltimore's next police commissioner by the City Council tomorrow.

'A terrible job'

In hard-hit communities and middle-class neighborhoods alike, few are well served.

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