Homicide loses veteran officers Rotation, retirement drain experienced detectives from squad

October 30, 1998|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Five veteran Baltimore homicide detectives have either quit or been transferred in recent weeks, a venting of talent that upsets the city's top prosecutor, who is worried that more murders may go unsolved.

The detectives, who had investigated slayings for a combined 88 years, left because of a controversial rotation policy in which officers are moved every few years. It was implemented for the first time in the homicide unit last month.

Police union officials say that if the rotations continue as scheduled, nearly all homicide investigators will have less than four years' experience within six months.

"We need detectives with as much experience as possible," said State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy. "This is the most serious offense that we can ever have come across our desk. There is no making the victims whole again. We owe them the best investigation and the best prosecution possible."

The five departures come in addition to retirements of veteran detectives who have left over the past three years, saying they did not want to be subjected to the anticipated rotation.

Critics, including Jessamy, say the once-veteran homicide squad has been decimated, while murders continue at an unrelenting pace. More than 300 people have been killed each year since 1989.

But Col. John E. Gavrilis, chief of the Criminal Investigation Bureau, said the squad's arrest rate is above the national average of 60 percent, proving that slaying suspects are being taken off city streets.

"We have brought in some good strong folks from patrol who have very good skills," Gavrilis said. "And we are returning to the district some experienced and good detectives. I think rotation has been good for the department."

As of yesterday, 258 people had been killed in the city, nine more than at the same time last year. Arrests have been made in 126 of this year's slayings.

Frazier's policy

Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier, an outsider hired in 1994 from San Jose, Calif., has sought to end what he called a "good old boy" system that kept detectives entrenched while excluding others, particularly minorities, from getting coveted assignments.

Frazier said in 1994 that he was willing to take "short-term" losses in the number of slayings solved to implement rotation in the homicide unit. In 1995, detectives solved 74 percent of slayings (the numbers include homicides that occurred in previous years). That dropped to 69 percent in 1996, 62 percent in 1997 and stands at 67 percent this year.

"Rotation is a reality," Gavrilis said. "To rehash this over and over again doesn't make sense to me. The detectives we have in place now are good detectives. We're not going to lose any performance or quality in investigations."

'Junior detectives'

But Baltimore District Judge Timothy J. Doory, a former prosecutor who headed the state's attorney's violent-crime unit until November 1996, said he considers investigators with four years' experience to be "junior detectives."

In 1995, when a group of detectives retired rather than face rotation, Doory called it "the worst venting of talent" he had ever seen. The latest departures, he said yesterday, mean that experience "has been eliminated" from the unit. "It is not, in theory or in practice, a wise idea."

Officer Gary McLhinney, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, called the latest departures a "total brain drain. Fewer homicides will be solved, which means more murderers will walk the streets."

Commanders had delayed implementing rotations in the homicide squad last year, when one-third of the 58-member unit was due to move. But many veteran detectives have retired in the past three years in anticipation of being ousted. Some took jobs investigating homicides in suburban counties.

The moves in homicide began last month when Robert J. Bowman, a 21-year detective who joined the department in 1960, was assigned to a patrol car in Northeast Baltimore.

McLhinney said that 23 detectives with a combined four centuries of homicide experience are slated to be rotated within the next year. "No matter how good or how bad you are, in four years you are gone," the union president said.

Retired or transferred

None of the detectives who left or were transferred could be reached for comment. Earl R. Kratsch, a 38-year veteran and a homicide detective for nearly half his career, retired yesterday instead of reporting to the Southwestern District.

Vernon A. Holley, a 28-year veteran who spent a dozen years in homicide, left for a security job with the Ravens football team. Scott T. Keller, who spent 18 of his 24 years on the force in homicide, also has retired. Oscar L. Requer, who has spent 19 of his 34 years on the force in homicide, was moved to a desk job in personnel.

Next up is Detective Donald E. Steinhice, who joined the department in 1963 and has been on the homicide squad for 29 years.

Jessamy said she has told Frazier of her concern about experience in the homicide unit for years. She recently reorganized her staff to make sure that the most experienced prosecutors handle murder trials.

"Don't make me cry," she said, when read the list of detectives who have departed. "That's a shame."

Pub Date: 10/30/98

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