With violence spike, Bealefeld wants more urgency from officers

Commissioner pushing for better information gathering, sharing

August 16, 2010|By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

Frustrated by a string of particularly violent weekends, Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said he is instructing officers to put more pressure on known criminals and find better ways to share internal intelligence.

The commissioner said much of this past weekend's violence appeared to stem from drug disputes or continuing feuds, but after huddling with top commanders Monday morning, Bealefeld said he was disappointed by a lack of insight into those crimes.

Eleven people were shot and three killed across the city from Friday through Sunday, in addition to two police-involved shootings and two stabbings near downtown.

"We need to be targeted, we need to be energetic, and we need to be much more involved with the community if we're going to prevent crime," Bealefeld said. "We have to make sure everybody is operating with [a sense] of urgency, and I'm just not convinced of that right now. And we'll keep having these meetings until I'm convinced that we are."

Bealefeld cautioned that the department was not moving away from its three-year strategy of "targeting violent offenders" and wasn't seeking mass arrests. But he said a tactic called "stop and frisk" might be used more and that foot patrols will be increased.

He noted a weekend shooting in which an officer was in the same block, and said a man had hidden a gun in a block where a shooting had taken place a week earlier.

"If people feel unfettered to be in that sort of close proximity to our cops and be armed with handguns, something's wrong," Bealefeld said. "It tells me by way of analysis, they're not feeling the cops. There's no deterrence or psychological apprehension to be walking around armed with guns."

The trend of violent weekends began with the four-day Memorial Day weekend, when 10 people were slain. Other recent weekends have seen shootings in double-digits, including the shooting of 10 people, four of them fatally, between Aug. 6 and 8.

The high-profile deaths of a Johns Hopkins researcher in Charles Village and an elderly church caretaker in East Baltimore, along with the intensifying race for city state's attorney, have elevated the discussion of crime in the city after two years of generally celebrated declines.

Baltimore saw homicides decrease to a 20-year low in 2008, and nonfatal shootings have fallen 30 percent since 2007. But both figures have plateaued this year – homicides and shootings are tracking with last year's numbers.

Now, Bealefeld is seeking to re-energize a force damaged by morale problems. More than 130 positions remain vacant, and many who remain are grumbling about changes to their pensions. The city's public safety unions paid for a billboard near City Hall that welcomes visitors to Baltimore: "Home of a mayor and city council that turned their backs on police and firefighters."

Robert F. Cherry, president of the city police union, said it might be time for the department to change its strategy on crime. But he also said the morale issues should not be underestimated.

"You can only beat down your good officers so much before they start giving up on the fight," Cherry said. "A lot of the officers who are out there every day and every night, putting their lives on the line, they just don't feel like they have the backing from City Hall."

Bealefeld said he and Deputy Commissioner Anthony Barksdale had met last week with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to discuss her concerns about the trend of violent weekends, and he said she "wants to do whatever it takes to get a handle on these weekend spikes."

Though the department has been authorized to use overtime as needed, Bealefeld indicated the problem is more than just resources.

Though the department has placed significant numbers of plainclothes officers into areas that continue to report some of the highest crime in the city, Bealefeld repeatedly spoke getting better effort out of patrol officers. Asked about staffing shortages and a high volume of 911 calls, Bealefeld acknowledged those challenges but said they were "excuses" and that officers needed to work harder.

"People are getting shot, and nobody wants to hear excuses from me, and I don't want to hear excuses from them," he said.

As commanders sifted through the weekend's events, new details emerged.

Anthony Guglielmi, the department's chief spokesman, said a number of recent incidents have targeted Hispanics and that police would be disseminating information through Hispanic media outlets.

Two Hispanic men were shot — one is in critical condition and is not expected to survive — early Saturday in the 100 block of N. Linwood Ave. in a robbery attempt that police believe could have been part of a gang initiation. The suspect in that crime is a black girl.

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