First female homicide chief fights two battles Maj. Patek must quell others' doubts, solve more murders in city

December 26, 1997|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

The commander of Baltimore's homicide unit is riding around East Baltimore at dusk. Someone was killed here the day before, says Maj. Kathleen Patek, so the mood is tense: "People will have guns on the streets, because they're not really sure what went down."

Suddenly she and Lt. William Robbins spot a drug deal in progress. When they swerve the car around, people scatter. Patek searches for the stash and questions a woman passing by.

Upon learning she just got out of jail, Patek asks how long she was locked up and if she has children. As if on cue, a 3-year-old boy yells, "Don't talk to them, Mommy! They're police!"

This is the reality of Baltimore's toughest streets: It is "us vs. them," and even a child knows it. Patek, who assumed command in May on the same day an officer died in the line of duty, has a daunting job in hostile terrain.

Even though the number of homicides in the city has declined this year, the Police Department is solving a smaller portion of them. And Patek is under pressure from her bosses and City Council members to do something about it.

The clearance rate -- the percentage of arrests in homicide cases -- is hovering around 64 percent, below the national average of 65 percent. Last year, the city's rate was 70 percent. For a department that prides itself on often doing better than average, the drop is disturbing.

At a recent staff meeting with the six lieutenants she supervises as the head of the crimes against persons unit -- which includes robberies, shootings, sex offenses and missing persons as well as homicide -- Patek said: "We've got to get the clearance rate up 5 points at least. We need to work on this, because this is what we're all rated by."

Especially her, she might have added. Her goal for 1997 was a respectable 67 percent. But now, only days away from the end of the year, it looks unlikely that the unit will achieve that.

The trouble is that more and more homicides are planned and premeditated, making them harder to investigate, according to homicide lieutenants. That's why some of the department's best detectives have many of their cases open, they say.

This year's crop includes more "whodunits" and fewer "dunkers," in detective lexicon. Dunkers are the easy ones, the domestic violence cases where someone at the scene is holding a smoking gun or a bloody knife.

But most of the outstanding cases are drug-related, Patek says, calculated matters of revenge or street justice for narcotics deals gone bad -- not done in the heat of a moment or argument. Sometimes bodies are discovered far from a crime scene in remote places like Leakin Park, making them tough to identify.

She tersely describes the modus operandi of many of the open cases: "Pull up, let you have it, no witnesses, hitting the intended target." Based on last year's figures, about 80 percent of the city's homicide victims are black men.

Lawrence Sherman, a University of Maryland criminologist, traces the lower clearance rate to a trend he calls "the juvenilization of homicide." Younger suspects intimidate witnesses, he says. "People are afraid of crazy kids who would retaliate against anyone."

City police officials say the average age of those charged with homicide last year was 18. Detectives say young criminals can be harder to catch, too, since they roam more than older ones.

The strategy Patek has developed to deal with the problem is a throwback to good old-fashioned policing, albeit with a new name: "IntelOps," short for intelligence operations.

That means assigning a squad of five homicide detectives to go to the police districts where open cases are concentrated -- the Eastern District, for example -- and debrief every person arrested, even if the charge is not connected to a shooting or a homicide.

The premise of IntelOps is simple: people are more talkative when they're incarcerated and facing hard time. Crime networks are fairly small. Finally, most people, especially those behind bars, have something worth sharing with police about the streets where they live.

"They know who's buying and selling drugs, the gangs, nicknames, bits and pieces," says Patek. Collecting those pieces and putting them together can sometimes lead to a suspect.

"We're confident gathering intelligence on gangs and nicknames will work," she says. "The key is to get information which will help us clear homicides and sign up informants."

The other challenge the soft-spoken Patek faces is internal, not external: winning the respect of the elite and hard-nosed homicide unit, since she was never one of them. There are now only six female homicide detectives, and many of the older male detectives are not used to serving with women in central headquarters -- "downtown," as they say -- much less reporting to one.

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