Foot patrols scaled back

Policy reversed

homicide detectives won't walk beats

June 15, 2007|By Gus G. Sentementes and Julie Bykowicz | Gus G. Sentementes and Julie Bykowicz,Sun reporters

Baltimore police officials suddenly ended yesterday a controversial but short-lived initiative that had homicide detectives pausing their investigations to don their uniforms and walk beats

For two weeks, the homicide unit had been included in a police strategy, backed by Mayor Sheila Dixon, to place 85 detectives on the city's most violent streets.

Faced with a staffing shortage and political pressure to rein in overtime spending, police officials had ordered homicide and district detectives to walk foot patrols at least once a week.

"We refuse to still admit how desperately short this agency is," said Paul M. Blair Jr., president of the city's Fraternal Order of Police union. "To take them from homicide was not one of the smart ideas to come out of City Hall."

With the rise in nonfatal shootings and homicides -- 140 people had been killed by yesterday, 18 more than at the corresponding time last year -- Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm decided yesterday to exempt homicide detectives from foot patrols.

Still on beats last night were the district detectives who investigate burglaries, robberies and nonfatal shootings.

City residents seem to appreciate the foot patrols -- one told a detective that he was "better than a blue-light camera," a police union official said -- and the patrols are a major part of the crime plan that Dixon announced about two months ago.

Robert F. Cherry Jr., a union vice president who is a homicide detective, said the sudden change by the department shows either that Dixon has no crime-fighting plan or that her plan is not working.

"It's amazing how quickly they switched gears with one unit," he said. "The plan, if there is one, is just to get them through three or four months until the election."

Police union officials said they generally support foot patrols but had criticized putting homicide detectives on the patrols, saying it was more of a public relations ploy than a well-thought-out plan.

The homicide detectives grumbled loudly, saying their valuable investigative time was being squeezed.

Cherry said investigators felt that they could not devote adequate time to their cases while going on foot patrols. He was able to speak publicly because he is in the union; homicide detectives were not authorized to talk to reporters.

The arrest rate this year for homicides is 49 percent, a department spokesman said.

Gary D'Addario, a homicide sergeant in the 1980s who retired as a major in 2004, said that shows the homicide unit needs to be supported, not asked to support other parts of the department.

"When you have low statistics, this unit needs help," he said. "They should not be used for temporary crime-fighting details."

James Alan Fox, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University in Massachusetts, called the plan to put the detectives on foot patrols "ill-advised."

"That's not what they're skilled at," he said. "Their skills are detective work, investigations, not foot patrol. ... It's going to hurt the investigative work."

Cherry said a major complaint of the detectives was that many public statements by Hamm and other officials didn't reflect the reality of the foot patrol strategy.

One homicide detective was ordered to go on foot patrol less than 24 hours after beginning a complex homicide investigation, which department officials had assured them would not happen, Cherry said.

Anthony McCarthy, a Dixon spokesman, said each homicide detective was to be walking patrol in an area where he had an active investigation. Cherry said that wasn't happening and that all homicide detectives were walking in the Eastern District.

Matt Jablow, a police spokesman, said the requirement had affected about five homicide detectives a day. But the shift schedule for Wednesday showed that 13 of the 34 homicide detectives who were working were assigned to foot-patrol duty.

Jablow said the decision to exempt the homicide detectives was made "in light of the continued wave of homicides that the city is experiencing."

A day earlier -- and yesterday morning -- police and city officials were supporting the decision to have homicide detectives in uniform and on the streets.

In a brief interview yesterday, about three hours before foot patrols for the homicide detectives were canceled, Frederick H. Bealefeld III, deputy commissioner of operations, said he and Hamm thought the patrol division "needed a shot in the arm."

"Our patrol division is already maxed out," Bealefeld said. "All these other people have to contribute to the primary mission of this Police Department, which is patrol. The vast majority of the men and women of this agency get it, they understand it, they embrace it. But some will do whatever they can to get out of it."

In a statement issued Wednesday in response to questions from The Sun, McCarthy said the mayor had asked Hamm to "strengthen the relationship between the police and the communities they serve."

"The commissioner believes it is important for homicide detectives to know the communities they serve and to be familiar faces to residents before they show up asking questions," the statement said.

After the plans were changed yesterday, McCarthy said, "A point of concern from the start was the question of what to do with those homicide detectives on active investigations. The mayor thought asking one day a week was not in any way extraordinary. She understood there were some questions around clearance and cases. When we got word today of the change in that department's participation, it really didn't come as a surprise."

With homicide detectives off foot patrol duty, McCarthy said, "we'll see, now that they will not be on the street, we'll see if their clearance continues to improve."

gus.sentementes@baltsun.com julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

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