Howard police battling backlog

Temporary squad set up to help clear outstanding warrants

February 10, 2002|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

The 19-year-old hadn't shown up at court in January for an alcohol citation and didn't appear to have a residence or employment.

On Thursday, Howard County police Officers Cory Jefferson and Todd McGill made it their mission to find the man and deliver him in person - and in handcuffs - to the criminal justice system.

On their second day in what Chief Wayne Livesay called the county's largest warrant initiative since he joined the department in the 1970s, the two officers had already made two arrests, closing four open warrants.

Normally patrol officers, the pair said they were enjoying their temporary reassignment.

Each of Howard County's 3,500 outstanding warrants holds its own miniature investigation, with computer searches, anonymous phone calls and plenty of background work.

Warrants, which call for a person's arrest and court appearance, have been piling up at police departments across the country for years.

Recent initiatives - such as the Baltimore region's Warrant Apprehension Task Force - have helped reduce some of the backlogs, but the number of open warrants has yet to reach a manageable level in most counties.

Many of the outstanding warrants in Howard County are for domestic violence charges or for failure to appear in court on other charges. Other common warrants are for charges including minor assault, burglary, and minor drug and alcohol violations.

The county's most-wanted suspect is Robert William Stone, who is accused of committing a spate of recent commercial burglaries.

Although most of Howard County's warrants are not as serious as those in Baltimore, serving them is an important part of keeping the wheels of justice turning, police say.

So for the next few months, Jefferson, McGill and 14 other Howard County police officers, supervised by Sgt. Mike Hajek, will practice their gumshoe skills.

"Let's say Johnny is your target," Hajek said Thursday morning while standing next to the warrant unit's filing system in the Southern District police station.

"You don't just go to Johnny's house and expect him to be there. You have to talk to people around him," he said, drawing a circle in the air with his finger. "They'll lead you to him."

With Hajek's advice in mind, Jefferson and McGill focused on four warrants, including the one for the 19-year-old.

"Hey, commish, we'll try to get you some customers today," McGill said as a court commissioner passed them in the station Thursday morning.

The warrant officers have their work cut out for them. Howard County's mountainous pile grows by about 200 warrants each month.

Livesay launched his first attack on the 4,500 outstanding warrants last year, when he doubled the warrant unit from four to eight full-time officers.

"Frankly, what I did last year hadn't made as much of an impact as I had hoped," Livesay said in an interview last week. "As they tried to serve warrants, the court kept sending us more and more."

Now, he has brought in re- inforcements for a full assault. Eight pairs of officers will investigate and deliver warrants in two 10-hour shifts every day of the week for at least 60 days.

Those officers and Hajek will concentrate on delivering warrants in "five key areas" that Livesay said he has targeted for crime reduction: North Laurel and the Columbia villages of Harper's Choice, Long Reach, Oakland Mills and Owen Brown.

Shifting the 16 officers from patrol to warrant work will not affect the county, Livesay said. He timed the warrant initiative to coincide with the release of 15 new officers from field training to patrol duty.

The 15 officers started patrol work Wednesday, the day the warrant initiative began.

"As we got new officers on the street, I could afford to detail some officers to warrants for a while," he said.

Throughout the initiative, the eight-member warrant unit will simultaneously carry its normal load, and another officer will continue participating in the Baltimore-area warrant task force, a partnership of the Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Howard County police departments.

The tactical unit and the captain's squad also will work on warrants several days a week, Livesay said, bringing the number of officers concentrating on warrants to 35 on some days.

Livesay said he will evaluate the warrant initiative after 60 days, at which point, he said, he might scale it back.

"I'm hoping to knock down a few thousand warrants," Livesay said. "If we can do that, I think we'll be able to scale back the number of officers working in warrants and still keep them under control."

The number of outstanding warrants is more severe in nearby jurisdictions such as Baltimore County. There, police face about 10,000 outstanding warrants.

But when comparing county populations, the warrant workload is nearly identical.

Baltimore County police spokesman Bill Toohey said about 20 officers are assigned to the warrant task force, and each precinct has a additional officers to deliver warrants.

Howard County's warrant investigators have made progress. The 16-officer temporary squad closed 19 warrants the first day of the initiative, six on Thursday, and at least three Friday.

The eight-member permanent warrant unit has closed 25 since Feb. 1.

By noon Thursday, Jefferson and McGill had found the 19-year- old who skipped court on the alcohol citation. They checked with his last known employer and discovered that he had not worked there in months. They decided to check his parents' house in North Laurel.

"When they don't work, they end up back with Mom and Dad," McGill said.

Sure enough, minutes after pulling up to the parents' home, they escorted the still-sleepy 19-year-old to the squad car.

He spent the next few hours at the Southern District booking station before seeing a court commissioner.

"When you get a new court date, please, please make sure that you go. OK?" Jefferson advised the man. "We don't want to have to do this again."

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