Firearm tip line promises a payoff

Reporting illegal guns brings cash reward if weapons seized

September 19, 2000|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Baltimore police have put a bounty on illegal guns.

No longer are they just encouraging people to call 410-685-GUNS to report people carrying firearms. Now they are paying $200 for each tip that leads to an arrest and a gun seizure.

"People will give up their mother for $200," Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris said. "People should be doing this for nothing, but sometimes a little cash incentive goes a long way."

The money comes from a $79,000 grant from the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention and adds muscle to the city's gun tip line, which has existed for years.

Top law-enforcement officials from several agencies announced the Gun Stoppers reward program yesterday and emphasized the need to work together. Strained relationships and inter-agency turf battles have at times overshadowed crime-fighting efforts in the past year.

A public-relations campaign, which includes distributing 150,000 business cards, some in Korean and Spanish and explaining how the reward can be claimed, is being launched to promote the program.

It also includes radio ads, signs on the sides of buses and 60 spots on cable television.

More than 5,000 posters have been made with catchy phrases such as "Spread the word, not the weapon" and "An illegal gun in their hands means $200 in yours."

It is part of an effort to stem the tide of killings - 242 of last year's 309 homicides were committed with guns. This year, police have seized 1,772 guns on city streets.

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend said the message is simple: "Stop the violence before it begins. Gun Stoppers will give Baltimore one more way to defend itself."

Yesterday's announcement at the Mondawmin Mall parking lot was attended by a cross-section of Maryland's law-enforcement community, including top city police commanders, the city state's attorney, the U.S. attorney and the head of the Baltimore office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

The officials talked about the importance of working together to end violence. But behind the scenes, all is not well.

City police officers complain that prosecutors do not aggressively target gun suspects they arrest and instead use the harsh gun penalties as plea-bargaining chips to win convictions on lesser crimes. A recent investigation by The Sun documented that most violent offenders in Baltimore receive little or no jail time.

Three top officials in the local office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms are under internal investigation, reportedly after complaints from U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia that they conspired to undermine federal prosecutors in how gun cases are handled.

Some officials acknowledged yesterday that they are working as hard to persuade other agencies to cooperate as they are to rid the streets of crime.

"I think we're working very closely to get people on the same wavelength," Townsend said. "We are insisting that they work together. ... We will reduce turf battles."

People who call the gun number to offer a tip will be given a code. If an arrest is made and an illegal gun seized, the person who called will get $200 within five days.

Police cautioned that they will still have to build cases. A Supreme Court ruling in March concluded that an anonymous tip that a person is carrying a gun, "without more information of criminal activity," is not sufficient for an officer to search the suspect.

Community leaders said police need to be aggressive in getting guns off the street, but not at the expense of civil rights.

"This program is a 911 call to all our community leaders to come out of the boardrooms and go out into the community," said Kent Sanders, president of the Penn-North Community Association. "If you do not gain the trust of our community members, this program cannot work."

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