Return of the duty officer

Position: City police bring back high-ranking position to add supervision to nighttime patrols.

June 03, 2000|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

The midnight hour has a new boss.

Baltimore police officers who work the late-night and overnight shifts now face the probing eyes of the command staff. For anything from shootings to car stops, an officer with stripes covering his sleeves is beside them in a marked patrol car.

The duty officer, an almost forgotten position, is back.

"We want to have people of rank in the field, and we want as many as possible," said Commissioner Edward T. Norris. "Before this, a sergeant would be the highest-ranking person, and that doesn't give me a real high comfort level."

Problems usually occur "because of a lack of supervision, especially on the midnight tour," said Norris, who wants officers to be aggressive without abusing their power, a concern some residents have about the new commissioner's tactics.

Though it's exhausting, most of the 28 majors and four captains enjoy rotating through the shifts -- each working from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. -- as it gets them away from their desks and gives them the responsibility of the city, from the southern tip of Brooklyn to the northwestern corner of Liberty Heights.

In addition to responding to serious calls, the duty officer has to inspect each of the nine districts by driving there and chatting with a shift commander -- usually a lieutenant -- and to swing by the officer guarding the mayor's house in Northeast Baltimore.

It also means checking parking lots and convenience stores to make sure officers aren't congregating.

"I guarantee you, when the duty officer makes his presence known in a district, police tires are squealing from 7-Eleven parking lots," said Maj. George L. Klein, a 26-year veteran who covered the duty this past Saturday night and Sunday morning.

"Young officers are always going to be in need of direction," Klein added. "This keeps them on their toes."

Klein, whose regular job running the sprawling Southwestern District keeps him working 14-hour days, had a relatively quiet shift. The commander had to deal Monday night and early Tuesday with two shootings of suspects.

Tensions often run high at such incidents, and the presence of a high-ranking officer can calm volatile situations. Klein said he sometimes briefs officers and sends them into the crowd to explain a situation, hoping to quickly quell rumors.

The most serious incident on Klein's shift was a quadruple shooting on Chalgrove Avenue in Pimlico. He was three miles away when a dispatcher notified him about 30 minutes after midnight. Lights and siren on, Klein headed to the scene and pulled onto Reisterstown Road as an ambulance sped by in the opposite direction, taking a victim with a head wound and escorted by a police car.

By the time Klein got to the scene, he learned the victims were only slightly hurt.

The head wound was a graze, and two suspects were handcuffed in the back of a wagon.

Satisfied that everything was handled properly, he climbed back into his cruiser.

Sometimes, he said, having the boss on the scene only gets in the way. "They don't need that extra pressure," he said.

The duty officer position, unused since 1994, was restored by Bert L. Shirey when he became acting commissioner in November. He is now the deputy commissioner of administration.

Too many times, Shirey said, top commanders had to be called in from home to respond to emergencies.

It took a high-ranking police official an hour to respond to the October fatal shooting of Larry Hubbard Jr. by a police officer, which triggered an uproar in a neighborhood.

Pulling "The Duty," as it is called by police, is not a cushy job.

In November, just two weeks after the new practice started, a police major with 32 years' experience was the first to respond to a robbery of a fried chicken store on East North Avenue.

He shot the suspect twice.

But most of Klein's tour included conversations like this one on a Southeast Baltimore street:

"How we doing?" he asked a patrol officer.

"Still alive, sir," responded Johnnie R. Carroll Jr., who joined the force five years ago. "We haven't had a shooting yet."

Klein then drove over to the east side, where officers were sweeping the area to stem a recent rash of shootings and homicides.

Norris wants to make sure that operations such as these, expected to lead to many drug and gun arrests, are well supervised.

Turning onto East Biddle Street from North Patterson Park Avenue, Klein saw something that makes his eyes light up.

Several men were fixing a dozen dirt bikes on the sidewalk. Groups of teen-agers race through neighborhoods with the illegal vehicles, sometimes running drugs, causing havoc. Police are hard-pressed to stop them because it's dangerous to give chase.

Klein radioed for another officer to come, and five cruisers almost immediately materialized at the corner. The major was talked out of making a bust by the officer assigned to the Collington Square neighborhood.

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