To veteran officer, a `sad state of affairs'

October 01, 2002|By John B. O'Donnell, Jim Haner and Kimberly A.C. Wilson | John B. O'Donnell, Jim Haner and Kimberly A.C. Wilson,SUN STAFF

During a long-ago April in which a young Edward T. Norris marked his first birthday, Officer Stephen B. Tabeling was summoned to police headquarters to hear praise of his fine work.

Now, 41 years after Police Commissioner James M. Hepbron congratulated the young patrolman, Norris is the commissioner and Tabeling is helping him lift the Police Department out of a funk that recently found the homicide squad unable to solve six out of every 10 murders.

Tabeling retired in 1979 after a distinguished quarter-century career that included five years as a lieutenant in homicide. He went on to serve as police chief in Salisbury and as director of security at Johns Hopkins Hospital and Loyola College.

Then, as Martin O'Malley was moving into City Hall, he was tapped for a new assignment: evaluate the city homicide squad.

"It was a mess," says Tabeling, 73.

"I knew our murder clearance rate was in the dumps," says retired Col. Bert Shirey, who was acting commissioner when he asked Tabeling for the assessment. "I think it was 30-some percent."

Tabeling delivered a succinct but devastating report -- a harsh eight-page indictment of the homicide unit and department brass -- and then went to work training virtually every city police officer and detective.

"There has been a failure of leadership at all levels, which rendered this once premier unit to this sad state of affairs," Tabeling said in the report. He wrote of a "malaise" in homicide, saying that "confidence in the unit's efficiency and effectiveness is at an all-time low."

Detectives lacked sufficient equipment, including automobiles and telephones, he said.

And they were ill-prepared, he wrote, citing "deficient skill levels in the basic investigative aptitudes."

Tabeling laid much of the blame on former Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier's "rotation" policy that replaced experienced homicide investigators with novices.

Many of the replacements, he wrote, were patrol officers "who possessed neither requisite investigative skills nor sufficient knowledge of the law nor of departmental policies and procedures." And, once they joined homicide, they weren't adequately trained.

"It's been such a big turnover," he said in an interview. "When you put inexperienced men in with inexperienced supervisors, I guess you're going to have those problems."

After Norris and subordinates digested his report, they again turned to Tabeling for help. He is now training detectives and uniformed officers in investigative techniques and in the art of testifying in court.

He is one of the instructors in a one-week course on criminal investigations. He spent 12 weeks teaching headquarters detectives and 26 weeks with district detectives. He is three-quarters of the way through a 49-week stint for uniformed officers. When he's finished, most patrol officers and detectives will have been in his classes.

Tabeling vividly recalls the days when he was a lieutenant on a squad of 28 detectives that investigated homicides and other crimes against individuals.

"We had a good captain, an experienced captain who was a good investigator" with long years of experience as a homicide detective, Tabeling said. "We had a squad of experienced, dependable investigators. We had patrolmen who knew what to do. We had roll-call training every day."

Basic investigative techniques haven't changed in the quarter-century since he was a homicide supervisor.

What is different today, Tabeling says, is a lack of adequate training, insufficient knowledge of the law and too little experience among investigators.

"And dedication," he adds.

Nearly three years after the rotation policy was jettisoned, Tabeling is dismayed to see weak murder cases going down the drain before they go to trial and defense attorneys winning acquittals after picking apart police investigations in front of skeptical jurors.

He doesn't blame the defense attorneys.

"The defense is only as good as the information investigators give them," he says.

He also sees a need for better communication between detectives and police personnel and between homicide investigators and prosecutors -- all aimed at better coordination and preparation of cases for court.

He emphasizes the importance of testimony.

"Court testimony skills must be of highest level of proficiency," he wrote in his report.

"I tell these guys," he said recently, "when you get on the witness stand, you not only tell the truth. It's how you tell the truth. You have to paint a word picture for the judge and the jury so they will think as if they were there."

Tabeling is an amateur student of the law who tracks court decisions that affect police work. His advice to patrol officers is blunt: Before a detailed search of a crime scene, get a warrant, even if you think you don't need one.

"You can't go wrong," he told a recent class.

"I would match Steve on Fourth Amendment law against any lawyer in town," says Peter D. Ward, a defense attorney who worked with Tabeling as a prosecutor.

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