City police create squad aimed at drug-linked slayings Homicide detectives hope unit provides clearer picture of violence

February 12, 1996|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore Police Department's homicide unit has a new squad of detectives to help investigators clear hard-to-solve drug slayings and at the same time bring down violent narcotics organizations.

Team members hope to gather enough intelligence to piece together a more complete picture of the violence, instead of what often seems to be a series of unconnected events.

With about 60 detectives working hundreds of cases each year -- most of which are drug-related -- investigators no longer can sit around the coffee room and compare notes.

"One guy has a murder on the Westside and another has one on the Eastside. They may involve the same people," said Sgt. Mark Tomlin, a homicide detective and leader of the new Special Operations Squad. "But the detectives may not know of each other's case."

Also hindering homicide investigations is the unorganized and haphazard nature of Baltimore drug dealing -- brought on by the ease of obtaining crack cocaine and its low cost -- which makes it difficult not only to investigate, but to understand.

"You used to be able to draw a reasonable pyramid, and it goes up to a main guy," Sergeant Tomlin said. "Now, you might have five or six of those in a three-block area. There is a structure in New York. You have to work for somebody and work your way up the organization. Baltimore has always been a wide open town. You can be your own entrepreneur."

The new unit was developed by Maj. Wendell M. France, commander of the homicide unit, who saw a need for his detectives to infiltrate drug organizations and street corner dealing to solve slayings.

"It allows us to look at and investigate murders from a different perspective," Major France said.

David McDowall, a criminologist at the University of Maryland who co-wrote a report analyzing the history of homicides in Baltimore, said the new program seems to be a good idea, because people involved in drugs often commit several violent crimes.

"The job is so busy for a homicide detective it's possible he could miss something that someone else is working on," Mr. McDowall said.

In part, the new squad reflects a realization that many drug killings are difficult to solve, especially by conspicuous suit-and-tie detectives who cause witnesses to back away for fear of being seen cooperating with police.

"You have a murder on Pennsylvania and Gold at 3 a.m., and 15 people are standing on the corner," Sergeant Tomlin said. "Who are these 15 people? They are waiting to buy drugs. They have no vested interest in helping the police."

The new squad will infiltrate the corner organization, develop sources and make arrests. Meanwhile, the information gleaned from the undercover work will be stored in a database and turned over to drug units for further investigation. In the past, such valuable intelligence remained in the homicide folder.

"You go after the homicide case," Sergeant Tomlin said. "It is inherent that some of that [other information] will fall by the wayside because you got to go after the shooter. It's our job to make sure the other information is not wasted."

Col. Steven A. Crumrine, commander of the criminal investigation bureau, likened the new unit to a district "flex team," officers in a police district who can be used for a variety of cases, from drugs to car thefts to purse snatchings.

The colonel said the new squad and the change in the Violent Crimes Task Force -- which is moving away from investigating drug organizations to handling the approximately 1,600 nonfatal shootings each year -- is a step toward Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier's goal of targeting violent drug offenders.

"So much of it is related. What we really need is a centralized database," Colonel Crumrine said.

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