Murders' Cold Trail

sun special report Killings in Baltimore have declined this year, but so has police success at resolving homicide cases - to the second-lowest rate in nearly 3 decades

October 26, 2008|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,melissa.harris@baltsun.com

More than a month after former city councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. was murdered, his case remains unsolved - highlighting a nagging problem for Baltimore police.

Despite a sharp drop in homicides this year, city police are solving murders at the second-lowest rate in 28 years, according to a Sun analysis of police and FBI statistics. In the 1980s, the department routinely solved more than 70 percent of its cases, but so far this year, the rate is 45 percent.

The steady decline in the department's record of catching killers has left hundreds of homicides unresolved. Among them: Nancy Schmidt, a 74-year-old retiree who was stabbed in her Remington home on April 21, and Jerrel Brown, a 31-year-old transgender prostitute who was shot in his home in the 3000 block of W. North Ave. on Jan. 8.

"It's very difficult for parents because we want to protect the next kid, and we can't because they're not solving [cases]," said Fran Sirbaugh, 57, whose daughter, Keri, 21, was found beaten and strangled steps from her Northeast Baltimore apartment in 1995.

The case is now in the hands of the homicide unit's cold case squad.

"I'm not satisfied," said Maj. Terrence McLarney, who took command in July of the city's homicide unit, which has more than 70 people. He would like to see the clearance rate about 15 points higher but pointed out that police are finding other ways to lock up homicide suspects when they can't secure murder charges.

The nation's homicide clearance rate has been declining gradually, but until the mid-1990s, Baltimore's prominent homicide unit performed above average. Now Baltimore's rate is about 10 percentage points below last year's national average for cities of its size.

Detectives, commanders and experts say the reasons for the decline are complex. But they boil down to a homicide unit that was badly damaged by an exodus of veteran talent in the mid-1990s and the subsequent growth of a "stop snitching" culture, said David Kennedy, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

Three years ago, Baltimore's epidemic of uncooperative witnesses became national news with the release of an underground video, Stop Snitching, in which a parade of criminals from the city's drug trade made explicit a long-unspoken culture of silence.

"The stop-snitching momentum, which stands in opposition to law enforcement's ability to investigate and prosecute crimes, is swamping the beneficial impact of the lower homicide rate," said Kennedy, who studied crime patterns in Baltimore in the late 1990s. "Yes, there are dramatically fewer [cases] to investigate. But you still need witnesses. You still need juries that will convict."

Bob Cherry, the incoming president of the department's police union and a homicide detective since 1999, said that often leaves investigators short. Detectives have access to information from federal prosecutors, supervisors, beat cops, specialized gang and intelligence units, a program that continuously monitors and maps crime, and new efforts to track guns - making it "very rare" that they don't know who committed a murder, Cherry said.

"But if witnesses in the community aren't willing to come forward and say, 'That's the person in the photo array,' and they aren't willing to tell that to a jury, then we just can't seal the deal," he said. "When it involves gang members, it can take you seven hours just getting them to admit they were even out there, let alone who did the shooting."

McLarney said that when he first joined the homicide unit in 1981, he would go to a murder scene and return to a pile of phone messages at the office - some anonymous and some not.

"The community was far more forthcoming," the major said. "People in the drug culture have begun over the years to tolerate murder."

At a recent community meeting in the Northeast District, police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III implored residents to come forward with information about the Harris slaying. Angry and frustrated, Bealefeld said that he was nearly certain the killers lived nearby but that only two calls had come from the neighborhood.

"I want to be flooded with phone calls about every dog fight and pot smoker in the neighborhood," Bealefeld said, raising his voice almost to a shout. "These kids likely live in the neighborhood because they ran from there. They didn't get into a helicopter and fly to Pennsylvania."

Reluctant witnesses also used to hamper homicide detectives in Richmond, Va., once dubbed "Murder City." But no more. Richmond posted a 116 percent clearance rate last year, which can happen when police solve old cases.

Former Richmond Chief Rodney Monroe, who now leads Charlotte's department, said he hired a community advocate to begin mending the department's relationship with the public. She organized candlelight vigils after each slaying and helped spark outrage over the violence. He said tips began coming into the advocate.

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