Police taking high-tech approach

Comstat sessions use technology to map strategy

Making connections

May 08, 2000|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Two shootings on the same street two weeks apart. Two detectives working the cases, each keeping crucial details to himself. The result: missed opportunities.

A detective trying to find Hilliard Jackson's killer didn't know that the victim's nephew had been wounded on the same spot on the same East Baltimore street 13 days earlier. And he didn't know that he and another investigator thought the same man committed the crimes.

The similarities in the two cases became apparent at a crime meeting called Comstat, where the Baltimore Police Department's top commanders question their underlings to find out where crime is occurring and how to deal with it.

FOR THE RECORD - The name of Maj. Michael Tomczak, commander of the Northeastern District, was misspelled yesterday in an article about the Baltimore Police Department's Comstat sessions.
The Sun regrets the error.

They gather in a darkened theater with crime maps projected onto 7-foot-wide screens - a complex cinema orchestrated from a glassed-in booth by officers at computer terminals communicating to their bosses with headphones used by air traffic controllers.

This is how crime is now fought in Baltimore.

It may still end with the bad guy wearing handcuffs, but the planning begins in a high-tech, tension-filled inner sanctum at police headquarters where the mayhem of the street is plotted for generals leading the troops into battle.

It's not always pretty. Detectives fell apart as they talked about the shootings in East Baltimore, which occurred a few weeks ago. It was the department's second-highest-ranking commander who pointed out that the two shootings, and possibly others, might be linked. It was the two detectives who suddenly realized they were talking about the same suspect, known only by his nickname.

It was yet another officer who stood up and delivered a knockout punch: He knew the suspect's real name, and how to find him.

"Thank you very much," said Deputy Commissioner Barry W. Powell, ending the inquisition as a stunned group of Eastern District officers stood silent at the podium. "A revelation."

Acting Commissioner Edward T. Norris could only shake his head. "Not real good," he said. "These links should have been made before. This is not the place to jump up and say, `I know this guy.'"

Foundation of crime plan

This is the foundation of the city's new crime plan - the one many citizens worry will lead to overly aggressive policing.

The new commissioner's plan is to quickly identify crime trends and direct officers to the trouble spots. Comstat is where the trouble spots are discovered.

A Sun reporter was allowed to observe one meeting last month, with the understanding that tactical operations and information about suspects not yet under arrest not be reported.

The session was revealing, both in how seemingly disparate incidents are linked, and how far the department has yet to go in coordinating a cohesive crime-fighting strategy in a city where someone is killed every 27 hours.

Increased complexity

For years, officers have been using pin maps to keep an eye on crime trends. Clumps of killings or robberies could easily be spotted. But Comstat goes much further in its complexities and detail.

In an example using real numbers, an officer punched up on the computer the troubled Park Heights corridor. Dots appear locating every stop of a citizen by police. A touch of another button shows every 911 call for drugs, shown on the map as a small syringe.

In this instance, the drug calls were in one area and police stops were several blocks away. Supervisors used the information to make sure officers question people where complaints originate.

And its all done at a packed meeting reminiscent of the Socratic method made famous in the movie "The Paper Chase." Awkward pauses in a presentation can bring more than embarrassment in a room full of colleagues.

It is a public dissection of job performance, laying bare missteps and other daily frustrations.

Fumbling for answers

In the East Baltimore case, investigators fumbled for answers under pointed questioning from their bosses. A detective launched into a convoluted scenario linking four unsolved killings to a series of street fights, stickups, retribution and crossed relationships, both personal and drug-related.

"I hope you can follow this, sir," Detective Joseph Jefferson said at one point, explaining that the information came from someone on the street.

"We need to get to this witness," replied Powell. "We get him and we can put down two murders. We have four homicides in the same location and we are missing key points. We could clear all these."

Commanders must be prepared for a barrage of questions on a variety of subjects.

Looking at a series of robberies on Sinclair Lane in Northeast Baltimore, all near a school, Powell asked Maj. Michael Tomcziak, the Northeastern commander, for the truancy rate.

He answered by saying that he had talked with the principal and doesn't believe the suspects are students.

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