Gun that killed Harris tied to Jan. case

Apparent robbery try at plaza where former councilman was shot classified as property crime

October 08, 2008|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,justin.fenton@baltsun.com

The gun used to kill former City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. had been fired in another crime in the same Northeast Baltimore shopping center months before, but police classified the earlier incident as a property crime instead of an attempted armed robbery, limiting the resources they devoted to investigating it.

In the Jan. 6 incident, two men wearing monkey masks walked into the BP gas station at the Northwood Plaza and walked toward a door made of bulletproof glass that leads to the cash register and the store's back office. Panicked, a 21-year-old employee ducked down and called 911 as the suspects fired two rounds from a 9 mm handgun into the door, leaving bullet marks that were still visible yesterday.

Kashif Khan, one of the owners of the gas station, said it was clear to him that the men wanted to commit a robbery.

"I showed [the detective] the surveillance and everything," Khan said. "I said, 'So you mean to say if somebody comes and shoots at the window and just because they didn't get through because it was bulletproof ... it's just property damage? I was real upset about that."

The way Baltimore police classify crimes has frequently been a political issue, with elected officials - including, at one time, Harris - questioning whether the department under-reported offenses to make public safety statistics look better. But the way a given crime is classified has a practical impact, too.

An investigation of a property crime is typically over after a report is written, officers say. However, with a robbery - a "part one" crime that counts against the city's violent crime rate - a district detective is assigned to the case and will follow up with the victim to gather more information, such as whether the incident was drug related. The detective sticks with the case and will provide additional follow-ups over time. Sterling Clifford, a police spokesman, said the January incident was missing critical elements necessary to classify it as an attempted robbery. A source familiar with the investigation said the attackers did not point the weapon at the gas station employee and made no verbal demands, apparently creating a challenge in discerning their intentions.

"The police officer who responded gathered the facts that were available to him at the time and wrote a report that corresponds with those facts," Clifford said. "Based on that information, you couldn't charge those guys with a robbery, so you wouldn't write it up as a robbery."

Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said the officer had done a "pretty good job" based on the facts available at the time, but he said he had questions about the incident.

"We all want closure and to make the neighborhood safer," Bealefeld said. "We should and will make sure the report is right, but we won't get sidetracked from the issue, and that is identifying who these guys are."

Police now say ballistics tests indicate that the bullets collected from the scene came from the same gun that was used on Sept. 20 to shoot and kill Harris in an apparent robbery at the New Haven Lounge, which is in the same shopping complex. Because a gun was discharged in the January incident, crime lab technicians entered the shell casings into a national database, where they have been matched with the casings recovered from the scene of Harris' shooting.

Bealefeld cautioned against using the incident to draw broader conclusions about how the city categorizes crimes. In 2007, Bealefeld said the department upgraded 633 incidents and downgraded 140, and that the numbers for this year trend the same way. With homicides and shootings down this year, Bealefeld suggested last month that a virtually unchanged violent crime rate could be attributed to more accurate reporting of crimes such as robberies.

On Monday, police released video taken from a surveillance camera at the Northwood Plaza that they believe may show one or more of the suspects. It shows three men walking through the plaza just minutes before Harris' death, and one of them is believed to be holding a Halloween-style skull mask like the one found near the crime scene that may have been worn by one of his attackers.

City Council members and community activists have been clamoring for a stronger police presence since Harris' killing, saying that the Northwood Plaza has languished in recent years. In a robbery that was remarkably similar to the attack that left Harris dead, three men wearing bandanas accosted the owner of the New Haven Lounge, a jazz club, in July and took money from a safe before exiting through a back door.

Peter Moskos, a criminologist at John Jay College in New York who spent a year as a patrol officer in East Baltimore, said he never felt pressure to downgrade crimes. But after being told about the incident by a reporter, he said it sounded "like a stretch to call that a property crime."

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