Baltimore police abolished a much-criticized six-year policy of rotating officers through different assignments, saying yesterday that it crippled the department's effort to investigate homicides and bring killers to justice.
Top department commanders said the "rotation" policy was directly responsible for a plummeting homicide arrest rate, which dropped from 70 percent five years ago to below 40 percent today, and an exodus of experienced detectives.
The change is one of a series of moves announced yesterday, some of which are linked to Sunday's mass killings of five women in a rowhouse. That case has taxed the 60-member homicide unit as it struggles with a surge of violence that is pushing the city to the brink of 300 killings for the 10th straight year.
"There is no question that back in the '80s, we had the highest clearance rate and highest conviction rate in the country," said Acting Police Commissioner Bert Shirey. "We had detectives down there their whole careers who knew how to solve cases."
To boost the experience level of detectives, Shirey is proposing to hire retired investigators as consultants to provide on-the-job training and offer a historical perspective on city violence.
During the mayoral campaign, Mayor Martin O'Malley promised to abandon the rotation policy the day after he took office. He was inaugurated Tuesday.
Yesterday, the rotation policy was condemned by police officials who had publicly backed the policy instituted by former Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier.
A year ago, Col. John E. Gavrilis, chief of the detective bureau, called rotation "good for the department."
Yesterday, he said: "Rotation definitely crippled us. There were times when we had detectives who had the motives and suspects in their head. That info is invaluable. We need people who know the culture of the city."
The clearance rate has been a problem for police, who last month released startling numbers that showed only 13 arrests had been made in the 80 Northeast Baltimore shootings that occurred from January through November. Citywide, 193 people had been arrested in the nearly 900 nonfatal shootings during that period.
Shirey, a 33-year veteran who is leading the department until O'Malley chooses a police commissioner, hinted he might retire soon. But he is quickly making his mark.
The interim commissioner said the city cannot wait in limbo as killings continue at a two-a-day pace. "This department needs leadership right now, and I'm going to give it to them," he said.
Gone is Frazier's idea of assigning homicide detectives to geographic beats, where they handled cases based on where they occurred. They will return to shift work and handle cases as they come in.
Back is the coveted homicide board, a chart hanging in the office showing each detective's name with the names of victims listed below -- in red ink for an open case and black ink for closed.
Everyone in the office could glance up and see quickly who was working a case and its status. Frazier, who thought it made the department look bad, ordered it removed after a book and national television show, "Homicide: Life on the Street," made the board famous.
O'Malley, who said he is trying to choose a commissioner quickly, backed the policy moves yesterday. "We're going to do all those management things that make sense," the new mayor said. "I've been bent out of shape since Jan. 1 over the murder rate."
Frazier, who resigned in October to accept a job in the U.S. Justice Department, introduced rotation -- in which officers changed assignments every three or four years -- shortly after he arrived in Baltimore from California. In theory, the policy appeared to hold promise for reforming a department long dominated by white, senior officers.
The former commissioner wanted to break down the "old boy" network that had controlled advancement to plum assignments such as the horse and motorcycle units. Frazier argued it would lead to a better trained police force and better opportunities for women and minority officers to move into prestigious units.
He staunchly defended the policy and once called homicide detectives prima donnas. "Detectives feel they are at the top of the pecking order," he said in a 1994 interview. "They see a return to patrol as a demotion. They seem to forget that's the job they took."
Rotation came to be almost universally condemned by judges, prosecutors and officers, who blamed it for a wave of retirements and forced removals that decimated specialized units. Angry officers ridiculed Frazier at their retirement parties.
"It failed miserably," said Sgt. Richard Hite, president of the Vanguard Justice Society, which originally supported the move as a means to improve conditions for its membership of 600 African-American officers. "The plan that was presented to us was not the plan that was implemented.