Police solve more deaths

Clearance rate for homicide cases in city improving

Trend reversed

Attention to detail, change of strategy lead to success

July 27, 2000|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

In a sign that the Baltimore Police Department's change of strategy is working, preliminary statistics show that detectives are solving far more homicide cases this year, sharply reversing a downward trend in recent years.

Statistics released this week show an 18 percent increase in the number of homicide cases solved this year, compared with the same period last year.

Through arrests or the finding of justifiable motives such as self-defense, detectives have solved 82 percent of city homicides, including more than half of the 171 slayings that have occurred this year, police said.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Maryland section about increases in the number of homicide cases solved by Baltimore police incorrectly reported the percentage of the gains. The number of cases solved so far this year has increased 18 percentage points over this time last year, not 18 percent, as reported. The so-called "clearance rate" for cases is, in fact, up 28 percent.
The Sun regrets the error.

By comparison, the homicide unit's so-called "clearance rate" was 64 percent for the period last year. The unit ended the year with a 54 percent clearance rate.

"We have grown leaps and bounds from that," said Col. James L. Hawkins, chief of detectives. "We definitely know we are going in the right direction."

Hawkins cautioned that the numbers will not be official until they are analyzed at the end of the year, but he said they can be used as "a barometer to monitor progress."

He said the numbers were helped by the return of seasoned detectives to the homicide unit, by detectives who handle nonfatal shootings being sent back to the districts, and by an updated computer database of city crimes. A number of old open homicide cases have also been solved, he said.

Officials also credit the use of the department's new Comstat program, in which top commanders meet weekly with Commissioner Edward T. Norris and use computer-generated statistics to analyze crime patterns and question subordinates on the status of investigations.

The gains come despite 25 more homicides having occurred this year than in the same period last year - and put the city's clearance rate well above the 69 percent national average for police departments.

"Every weekend the department gets better at solving crimes," said Mayor Martin O'Malley, who was elected last year on an anti-crime platform. "It is getting better and better every day."

Homicide detectives began an intensive training course this week to bolster their skills.

Maj. Stanford Franklin, director of the police force's Education and Training Division, said the improving arrest and clearance rates stem from detectives paying more attention to details.

"It is not rocket science, it is nothing elaborate," Franklin said. "They are not using some high-tech procedures you would see on television. It is hard work and down-and-dirty police work."

The closer attention to small details - such as investigating who previously shared a prison cell with a homicide victim, or what direction a victim had walked home - is a result of closer scrutiny from commanders, Franklin said.

Hawkins, who until this spring was commander of the Eastern District, said sessions similar to the Comstat meetings were held in previous years. But, he said, previously the sessions were held once every five weeks and did not include the sharp attention to detail.

"It only takes a couple of times for the word to get out, that you better be lifting every stone because when you get into Comstat, they are going to have questions, and you have better done the work," Franklin said.

He continued, "Before, I had the sense for a while a lot of the criminal investigators weren't really challenged to do a thorough job."

Hawkins also credits Comstat for a big rise in the number of nonfatal shootings solved. About 36 percent of those cases have been solved this year, compared with 11 percent at this time last year, he said.

About 35 homicide detectives are concluding their first week of the retraining program.

The school, created by retired homicide Lt. Stephen Tabeling, provides 40 hours of instruction in subjects ranging from basic investigating skills and constitutional issues to using the Internet and how to organize case folders.

Earlier this year, Tabeling issued a stinging report on the homicide unit, which blamed poor supervision and apathy for a falling clearance rate.

The department's official clearance rate, which is reported to the FBI each year, plummeted from 70 percent in 1994 to slightly more than 50 percent in 1999 under former Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier.

The classes will also receive instruction from FBI officials, prosecutors from the state's attorney's office and officials from the state medical examiner's office.

The city has paid Tabeling about $12,000 to organize the classes and establish a school for criminal investigators. That school will begin in September, Franklin said.

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