Public sits in on meeting of Baltimore Police commanders

November 30, 2012|By Justin Fenton and Justin George

With a series of shootings occuring in the Northern District in close proximity, police leaders asked Maj. Sabrina Tapp-Harper whether she had a handle on the problem.

It was not unlike what she and other district commanders face weekly at police strategy meetings, called Comstat. But for Thursday night's meeting, the public for the first time was also looking on, in-person and over computer screens.

Tapp-Harper expressed confidence that her district was on top of it, noting that a known gang member had been released from prison Wednesday night and officers had already paid him a visit.

For that, she got a round of applause from some of the residents in attendance.

This was obviously unlike any Comstat session these commanders have been to. Comstat has been in Baltimore since the late 1990s, brought here from New York by then-Mayor Martin O'Malley, and involves a weekly huddling to share statistics, analyze strategy and discuss investigations. 

Police Commissioner Anthony Batts, in his second month on the job, made the call to give residents a taste of what the meetings are like, at a time when homicides are gun violence are spiking.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who dropped by the meeting after a budget work session, said taking the meeting on the road was part of a broader effort to increase citizen involvement. "There's more to come," she promised. "I know in my heart that when we work hand-in-hand, we'll make progress that'll blow everyone's minds."

Abdul Muhsiy, 61, who lives in Gwynn Oak but owns a home in the Western district, found Batts responsive after he voiced complaints of disrespectful comments from officers on two occasions. After relaying to Batts the lackadaisical response that he received, the commissioner told Muhsiy that an Internal Affairs investigator would call him tomorrow.

"What he said is very, very essential, and I was pleased with how he responded," Muhsiy said.

Linda Towe, a volunteer with Project T.O.O.U.R., a community building group in Westport, said the meeting consisted of a lot of "stuff we'd heard before."

She said she wasn't impressed when Batts told attendees that the "no-snitch" phenomenon plaguing prosecutions was mostly myth. Experience told him hardened criminals snitch on each other all the time for lenient sentences, he said.

But Towe said she knows teens who've been killed for identifying suspects.

"Kids get shot and killed," she said. "It is an issue. They kind of waltzed over it like it's ok."

To kick off the meeting, the department went right to its districts that have been hit hardest in recent weeks, calling the Northern and Eastern districts. There's been eight shootings along Greenmount Avenue in recent weeks, on the border between the two districts. Alarmingly, two people were shot in the middle of the day just a block from where three people were shot the previous night.

"What broke down there?" asked Col. Dean Palmere, the chief of patrol.

Officers, the commanders said, were in the immediate area for both shootings - in the first, an officer saw the muzzle flash in his rearview mirror. In the second, officers were on the next street over. To police, it underscored the brazen nature of the city's crime.

"[Even] with all the deployment in place, there's still this level of tenaciousness," Deputy Commissioner John Skinner said.

In the triple shooting, 16-year-old Daniel Pearson, who was known on the streets as "Funny," was killed. Tapp-Harper, flanked by a homicide unit supervisor, said detectives have physical evidence and expect the the case to be solved. Meanwhile, she said the two men shot in the double shooting the next day - one of whom is also 16 years old - are paralyzed, and she said there investigators see gang connections in both cases.

Tapp-Harper and Maj. Melvin Russell, who leads the Eastern District, said they've developed intelligence packets on suspected criminals in the area, and are sharing that information and letting officers move between districts.

"Those borders no longer exist," she said. Both said they had community meetings planned to get the public involved.

Cognizant of the public looking on, Tapp-Harper started to describe a sensitive strategy and got the "cut it off" sign from a smiling Batts.

Maj. Johnny Delgado, the commander of the Northwestern District, was also asked how a shooting could have occurred in his district despite the area being well-trafficked. Delgado responded that two officers were working a foot patrol beat just one block away.

"When you talk about putting people where the crime is, that's pretty close," Delgado, saying the deployment has generally helped tamp down crime in that area.

With strong support in the audience from his district, Delgado told police brass - and Rawlings-Blake, who joined the meeting during his time - that he needed more resources. The question came after Batts asked what had changed in the district to cause a spike in homicides.

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