"The trouble with the retroactive investigation of crime is that no one can see it happening," says one veteran commander, a critic the current departmental priorities. "You can see a foot patrolman, or a new bicycle squad. But a detective who solves a robbery or a rape isn't going to get any public attention. He does what he does without being visible to the public."
As a result, the same Police Department that can muster only two investigators for hundreds of rape complaints was able to find dozens of officers to fully staff bicycle squads in each district last year. Defending such priorities, a Northern District shift commander recently credited his two-wheeled squad with making 40 arrests in 10 months -- a rate of about one arrest a month per officer.
"Congratulations," says a Northeastern District supervisor. "Most patrolmen working their posts make at least one arrest every couple days."
Likewise, the same agency that allows only one or two officers to probe hundreds of serious shootings in most of its precincts can still maintain a 22-officer mounted division and a canine unit with an authorized strength of 45 officers -- functions that increase the department's visibility but are less directly involved in crime suppression.
"If you get shot, it might not get investigated," says one district shift commander, "but we have one hell of a dog-and-pony show. The reasoning behind that is that cops with dogs and cops on horses are a visible presence and cops in plainclothes solving shootings are not."
The effect of such neglect: Five years ago, the Baltimore police "cleared" -- through arrest or dismissal -- more than 60 percent of 6,574 serious assaults in the city. In 1992, for the first time, the clearance rate for 8,452 reported aggravated assaults fell to less than 50 percent.
In real numbers, this means that five years ago, the department was unable to solve 2,612 serious assaults, but by 1992, that figure had grown to 4,256 -- an increase of more than 60 percent in the number of cases in which a violent offender attacked someone and remained on the street.
Such a decline in the arrest rate for serious assaults is particularly telling when set against the city's homicide clearance rate -- which remained above 70 percent during those same years. Detectives note that an aggravated assault can often be easier to solve than a murder; a victim is alive to possibly provide information.
Residents of neighborhoods beset by gunfire understand the phenomenon only too well:
"We see these people who are responsible for the shootings -- and everyone in the neighborhood knows who they are," says Linwood Cole, a Pimlico Road resident. "But within a day or a week, they're back on the corner. No one ever does anything
'We're essentially reactive'
Mr. Woods and his subordinates focused on more visible initiatives because they undervalued aggressive police investigation, according to many city commanders and detectives.
In repeated public appearances before his departure in November, Mr. Woods was fond of noting that the traditional police methods of patrol and retroactive investigation cannot deter a specific crime: If someone is going to commit a murder, there is little any police force can do to prevent the act. Therefore, Mr. Woods has told neighborhood groups, the city's rising crime rate was beyond the department's control.
"With regard to a department's patrol function and the 911 system, that's generally true," says James Fyfe, a Temple University professor and law enforcement expert. "No matter how many cops you deploy on the street, you are not going to deter a person intent on committing a crime."
But Dr. Fyfe and others also note that retroactive investigation of crimes can have an effect on crime rates, simply because more of the people continually engaged in criminal acts are arrested and convicted.
"Even in a city of Baltimore's size, the arrest and conviction of a few dozen stickup men -- guys who are doing crimes repeatedly -- could mean a 5 percent decline in the robbery rate," says one veteran city prosecutor. "The same could be said for a few key prosecutions of repeat sex offenders or violent drug suspects."
While Mr. Woods and his deputies repeatedly argued in 1992 that they were doing everything possible to reduce Baltimore's violence, most of the city's 8,400 serious assaults -- many of them would-be murders -- were dumped on district officers who haven't the time or resources to investigate the crimes.
"With a nonfatal shooting or stabbing, the follow-up investigation will consist of asking the victim if he knows who tried to kill him," says one district-level investigator. "If he doesn't, by and large, that ends it, because with rare exception, no one in the media or the general public pays attention to any crime other than murder."