Baltimore's scourge

October 01, 2002

NOW WE KNOW WHY.

We know why parts of Baltimore seem a lot like Dodge City, a lawless and uncivil town where criminals and mayhem -- not law and order -- rule the streets. We know why the culture of violence here seems nurtured, rather than bludgeoned, by the system created to keep it in check.

We know why thugs in this city kill over and over again, why they indulge in unspeakable brutality and why they fear no authority's attempts to stop them.

It's because they can get away with it.

If New York is known for Broadway, and Los Angeles is famous for Hollywood, Baltimore's claim to notoriety has been an unending cycle of murderous violence.

And now we know why.

The chances of a killer doing hard time in this city are no better than one in three, according to a Sun series that concludes today. That has left more than 1,000 murders unavenged in Baltimore since 1997, and hundreds of probable killers walking the streets.

Those numbers owe their existence to a city Police Department that in too many cases can't consistently forge winnable cases against murderers.

Officers often destroy, compromise or lose important evidence.

In other instances, police simply don't collect enough evidence for charges to stick in court. They don't interview witnesses; they don't work out inconsistencies in people's stories or ensure that surprises don't pop up in courtrooms.

Prosecutors are handed these cases to try, but they're left with a series of unappealing options: drop the charges completely, agree to plea deals that result in little jail time, or risk an acquittal at trial, which often means freedom for known hell-raisers.

Not surprisingly, the system's ineffectiveness has been an invitation for Baltimore's worst thugs to commit even more crime. The Sun series linked 683 violent crimes since 1997 -- rapes, carjackings, firebombings and murders -- to 83 defendants who had already beaten murder charges.

These problems have myriad sources throughout the criminal justice system. They can't be solved overnight, or by one official's leadership.

But if the Sun series demonstrates anything, it's the urgency with which city leaders now need to act. The heartbreaking stories of families shattered by unpunished murders; the enraging details about killers who dodge justice multiple times; the frustration expressed by judges, prosecutors, the police chief and the mayor -- all illustrate how broadly this problem cuts across this city, and how sharply it defines the city's image and agenda.

The Police Department is an important starting point, where officer training must become a more integral part of the regular operation.

Thanks to unprecedented attrition and past administrative mistakes, the department's homicide unit is enduring a wave of young officers who need real help in learning to build cases that hold up in court. More than 40 percent of the department's supervisors have less than five years on the job, according to the Sun series; 56 percent of the detectives have been there five years or less.

Commissioner Edward T. Norris and Mayor Martin O'Malley have to ensure that ongoing training sessions instruct these officers in the collection and preservation of evidence, in knowing how much they'll need at trial, and in cooperating with prosecutors to build convincing cases for juries.

Maybe that means crash courses in basic policing skills. Maybe it means ongoing efforts to refresh officers in procedures and protocols. Whatever is necessary, the police commissioner and the mayor must commit to doing it. Shoddy police work simply can no longer be the reason killers walk free in Baltimore.

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy also has a role to play in combating these problems. Her prosecutors -- rather than police officers -- should be responsible for deciding who is charged with murder. They know the law better, and that will be true no matter how much training police officers receive.

But Ms. Jessamy has never taken enough initiative to demand a change in charging responsibility, something that prosecutors in many other major cities have done.

It's time for her to step up. She'll need more money for prosecutors and investigators if her office assumes this responsibility, but a strong showing in the recent primary elections gives Ms. Jessamy political capital to push for those things, too.

Other necessary changes go more to the culture in this city than to specific departmental policies.

Police, for example, will need to shoulder more responsibility for the outcome of murder cases. Right now, the department is judged almost solely on the basis of cases it "clears," ones in which an arrest is made. But that gives officers little incentive to worry about how their evidence holds up in court, or whether the people they arrest actually go to prison.

Commissioner Norris and Mayor O'Malley must impress upon their officers that convictions matter as much as arrests, and that the whole system is responsible when killers go free.

Baltimore citizens also have a part to play in reform. Too often, as jurors or potential witnesses to homicides, Baltimoreans present themselves as part of the problem, rather than the solution. They acquit killers because they're suspicious of police -- not because the evidence doesn't hold up. They dodge responsibility on the witness stand -- changing their stories or "forgetting" what they initially told police.

That has to stop. The system's effectiveness relies as much on people of good faith as it does on good police work and sound lawyering. Those who don't stand up against killers are helping them -- and victimizing everyone else.

For years, homicide has defined the Baltimore experience and badly constrained the city's attempts at comeback or rebirth.

Now that we know why, no one has an excuse for perpetuating the status quo.

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