Police aim at backlog of warrants

Suspects in thousands of crimes identified but never arrested

Centralized team proposed

First targets are 260 charged with murder, attempted murder

January 22, 2000|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Thousands of people charged by Baltimore police with crimes ranging from petty theft to murder have never been arrested, and authorities say they will begin an aggressive effort next week to bring the fugitives to justice.

Teams of officers will start by targeting 260 people wanted on murder and attempted-murder charges, some decades old. Police have discovered 51,000 crimes in which a suspect has been identified but not apprehended.

At a news conference yesterday, police offered a variety of reasons for warrant pileup, including patrol officers who often are too busy to do more than knock on a suspect's door and hope he or she is home.

Police Commissioner Ronald L. Daniel is working to create a centralized warrant team to make hunting down criminal suspects a top priority to reduce crime and homicides.

"There is no question that there are repeat violent offenders on Baltimore streets," said police spokesman Robert W. Weinhold Jr. "They need to be removed. It takes time, resources and investigative prowess to track people down. This is now a priority."

The problem of unserved warrants is not new. City police acknowledged four years ago that 42,000 arrest warrants had never been served and promised then to start locking people up.

Officers have complained that district warrant squads have been disbanded because of staffing problems. And it is not unusual for warrants to be found stuffed into the backs of cabinets. But police commanders were reluctant to place blame yesterday.

"Whether we did it [searched for people] 10 years ago or a year ago is not important," said Col. Timothy Longo, chief of the department's technical services bureau. "What is important is that we are doing it now."

The warrant initiative is one of the first publicly announced crime-fighting strategies under Daniel, who took over the department Jan. 3 with a mandate from Mayor Martin O'Malley to quickly reduce killings.

O'Malley hired a consulting team headed by Jack Maple, a former New York deputy police commissioner who has restructured agencies from Boston to New Orleans, where crime has dropped to 30-year lows. He also has hired a top New York police official, Edward T. Norris, to serve as Daniel's chief deputy.

Norris and Maple have long advocated aggressive pursuit of fugitives to help lower crime. Maple has declined to talk with reporters, but in his recent book "The Crime Fighter," he talks about centralizing the New York Police Department's warrant squad.

Maple wrote that instead of targeting individuals, his officers would hit geographic areas. For example, if a homicide occurred in an apartment building, he would run the names of every renter and send in police to arrest everyone wanted by police at that address.

Maple wrote, "Our parade of fugitives usually could help us piece together the spot's entire chain of command."

A few months ago in New York, Norris shook up that city's warrant squad after homicides, which had declined for several years, rose slightly. The New York Post reported that he moved 200 warrant officers from precinct houses to four locations around the city.

In Baltimore, police use several methods to capture fugitives, including a U. S. Marshal's task force of local, state and federal law enforcement officials who concentrate on locating hard-to-find violent offenders.

Police said arresting known fugitives is a good way of locking up repeat offenders. "There is a small core of criminals in every city," Norris said at his announcement ceremony Jan. 11. "You have to know who they are and you have to get rid of them."

At yesterday's news conference at police headquarters, police demonstrated that they know whom they are looking for.

A table in front of the podium was draped with reams of computer sheets listing the names of wanted criminal suspects. Two other 8-inch piles were stacked in front.

Longo also unrolled a list of people wanted for murder and attempted murder that reached from his head to his toes. The display listed 26,000 names -- half of the people being sought in city crimes.

Police said the other half are only names, lacking valid addresses and dates of birth. Some might be dead.

Many of the names are duplicates, a person charged with several crimes and wanted on multiple warrants. The exact number of fugitives among the 51,000 cases could not be determined yesterday.

One of the names listed was that of a woman charged 31 years ago with killing someone when Longo, 37, was an elementary school pupil. The date of the unserved warrant is October 6, 1969.

No one could say how many attempts have been made to find the suspect, and details of the crime could not be learned yesterday.

Other cases on the lengthy list are not as serious. A quick scan revealed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people charged with failing to appear in court, often on minor traffic or other misdemeanor charges.

Officers said those kinds of cases rarely get much attention from police beyond a cursory attempt to find the suspect.

Most of those warrants don't surface unless the person is stopped by police or arrested on another crime.

Just the same, police want to clear up the backlog as much as possible. "There is a sense of urgency to remove these people from the streets," Weinhold said.

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