Tenacity pays off

Our view: Arrest of suspects in Harris' murder shows the city can fight back against crime, but solving murders depends as much on citizens as police investigators

November 18, 2008

In the two months between the fatal shooting in September of former City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. during a robbery at a Northeast Baltimore strip mall and last week's arrest of two suspects in the slaying, many citizens had begun to fear the case might go unsolved. Police linked the gun used in the killing to an earlier robbery attempt and released images of three masked suspects captured by surveillance cameras on the night of the shooting. They later announced the recovery of DNA evidence from the crime scene and appealed for witnesses to come forward. But then the investigation seemed to stall.

The murder of Mr. Harris, a popular politician and strong supporter of aggressive crime prevention, threw an unwelcome spotlight on the Police Department's backlog of unsolved killings despite this year's decline in homicides. One factor often cited for the department's current 45 percent clearance rate - down from 70 percent in the 1980s - is citizens' reluctance to cooperate in investigations, either because of witness intimidation or out of misplaced allegiance to a criminals' code of silence. The Harris killing seemed to reinforce the intractable nature of Baltimore's violent crime problem even as the city struggles to overcome that image of itself.

Police are calling the effort that led to the capture of the two suspects a model investigation that drew on forensic science, tips from the public and aggressive undercover work. One of the men arrested, 19-year-old Charles Y. McGaney, was interviewed early on by detectives; as other possible suspects were eliminated, his name kept rising on a list of potential targets until police felt confident they had enough evidence to take him into custody. When they raided a house last week and found him in the company of 20-year-old Gary Collins, they obtained a warrant for his arrest too. Both men have criminal records. A third unidentified suspect remains at large.

The results so far testify to what a determined, if deliberate, law enforcement effort can accomplish; now it will be up to prosectors to prove the case in court. Both suspects have denied the charges. But police can take some satisfaction in cracking a case that for a while seemed emblematic of the city's powerlessness against the scourge of violent crime. Mr. Harris' murder was a high-profile crime, and citizens should expect the same kind of concerted effort even when victims are not public figures.

But Baltimoreans must understand that the arrests in the Harris murder are only one step - a critical one, to be sure - on the road to justice. Police, citizens and other members of the criminal justice system must continue to work together to ensure a successful conclusion of this case.

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