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A dismal snapshot of law enforcement in Baltimore

ANALYSIS: The real value of the report by consultants is not its "camera-ready" recommendations, but the disturbing findings of departmental dysfunction

police car

A crime scene near Dukeland Street in West Baltimore last month.

Photo by: Mark Reutter

Forget the reassuring words by the mayor and police commissioner this afternoon about their strategy to fight crime in Baltimore.

Their joint press conference, timed to the release of a report on improving public safety, was full of affirmations about their commitment to “meet the current challenges we face,” in the mayor’s words, and included community leaders displayed at City Hall as helpful props for the TV news cameras.

In short, standard stuff from the handbook of crisis management as the city heads into the second straight year of rising homicides.

But there was real value in the report, ordered by Police Chief Anthony Batts, following a $285,000 review of the department by Boston-based Strategic Police Partnership in conjunction with former LAPD Police Chief William J. Bratton.

In a Reactive Mode

The value is found in the back pages of the document where the state of police operations are described in detail. Even taking into account that the consultants had an incentive to find fault (if only to justify their sizeable paycheck), the report paints a disturbing portrait of a dysfunctional department.

Among the findings:

• Up to 40% of the posts on each shift are staffed on overtime, “so sergeants are often supervising personnel from other shifts or even other districts.”

• The practice of staffing all posts at all times – “regardless of the call-for-service load and crime conditions” – is not only costing the city plenty in overtime, but “undermining morale and helping to drive attrition.”

• The city’s nine police districts have not be adjusted “since the 1980s” when the city’s population was 130,000 greater and concentrated in different neighborhoods than today.

• The eight-hour work schedule is obsolete and requires alternatives for more effective crime fighting.

• The patrol force “has become disengaged from the problems on the street, and particularly from crime.”

• And perhaps most damning: “the districts are largely functioning in a reactive mode, responding to calls, but doing little else to assert police control in the neighborhoods.”

Losing Focus on Repeat Offenders

Over the last few years, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has placed emphasis on finding and jailing the city’s most violent repeat offenders.

That strategy was endorsed by former Police Chief Frederick H. Bealefeld III – targeting “bad guys with guns” was how he liked to put it – and “tough justice” was the mantra of Gregg Bernstein’s successful campaign for state’s attorney in 2010.

But the violent repeat offender (VRO) program administered by the police and state’s attorney’s office has “lost its impetus and focus in recent years,” according to the report. The program’s centerpiece, the VRO lists, have become “too long and insufficiently selective” in part because some police commanders in charge of identifying VROs in their districts have fallen down on the job.

Compounding the problem is the lack of effective communication between police and prosecutors.

“Some in the [police] department believe that the State’s Attorney’s Office controls the VRO list,” the report says, “but the State’s Attorney’s Office representatives maintain that they are reliant on the department for most of the identifications.

“There have also been some differences about when a VRO can be removed from the list, with the State’s Attorney’s Office favoring retaining VRO names until subjects have been successfully prosecuted and sentenced to at least two years in prison, and some BPD officers urging a quicker turnover.”

Detectives Serving as Clerks

In the growing area of homicides – up to 211 so far this year – there are multiple administrative problems. The consultants praise the concept of the District Detective Units (DDUs), saying decentralization helps police nurture informants and pick up knowledge about “the worst actors in the local criminal population.”

But while the structural configuration is good, the nine DDUs “have been understaffed and subject to a wide range in the quality of their management.” Suffering worst from the understaffing – as few as seven detectives per district – are investigations of non-violent crimes such as burglaries.

“There is often a lone burglary detective in a given district contending with hundreds of burglaries per year and basically performing what some managers call a ‘data-entry function’ rather than a true investigative role.”

(The consultants could have added many stories from residents about the absence of police work in solving break-ins and other property crimes that hit home for so many citizens and deeply impact the city’s quality of life.)

Beating the System

The report goes on to cite other deficiencies that lead to “bad guys with guns” beating the system.

Anthony Batts speaking at City Hall last June during a spike in gang-related homicides. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Anthony Batts speaking at City Hall last June during a spike in gang-related homicides. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Up to 25% of cases dismissed in court are the result of a police officer’s failure to appear at the scheduled court proceeding, the consultants report.

The overall quality of report writing by officers is “poor” and their courtroom testimony “weak” – two prime reasons why convictions are so hard to get from Baltimore City juries.

Sugarcoating the Findings

Today, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Chief Batts emphasized the future, saying the department would undertake steps between now and 2018 (a Five-Year Plan!) to reduce crime, improve services, increase efficiency and redouble community engagement.

“We know that there are things as an organization that we are incredibly good at,” Batts said without citing any specifics. Speaking in generalities to the media, he sugarcoated the systematic problems revealed by consultant Bratton and his team.

Hopefully in private, the commissioner will read the report carefully and start wringing out results more effectively than his officers are doing on the street.

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  • BaltimoreDave

    Maybe Batts should spend less city rescues disrupting the DIY music scene and more time making an effective police force.

    • River Mud

      Now you listen here, we’re moving all hipsters to the top of the violent offenders list! Your combination of skinny jeans, poorly grown facial hair, and cardigans is most certainly an aggravated assault on Baltimore’s sense of fashion!

  • http://www.BaltimoreSpectator.com/ A F James MacArthur

    Excellent analysis. Well done! Bravo, bravo!!!

  • ushanellore

    We know things as an organization we are incredibly good at? What Mr.Batt, pray may that be, other than being incredibly good at being incredibly bad?

  • ushanellore

    These law enforcement guys are screwing up royally. They are not assets to the citizens of Baltimore, they are not assets to the prosecutors, they are not assets to the cause of justice or to the sense of community and cohesion needed to fight crime, they are just absolute assets to the criminals. If I am a criminal I couldn’t ask for better folks to be on my side, defend me, coddle me and set me free. As for the violent repeat offender, he is having the last laugh. Police officers wanting a rapid turnover of names in that list should be caricatured by KAL in a cartoon. I can’t believe it. This is either oxymoronic or moronic or both. The violent repeat offender thanks you Baltimore police from the bottom of his violent heart. How does he get off this list– by repeating his virulent offenses once every two months instead of 7 times a week?

  • Charles Burke

    In the past few months I have secured my home with the Gibraltdoor , it is home invasion proof, I even put one on my master bedroom closet and created a walk in safe /panic room to run too! http://www.gibraltdoor.com for solid peace of mind,like a rock.

    • Matthew Riesner

      That will work well if your interior walls are made out of masonry. However, in most homes, all someone would have to do is kick a hole in the drywall/plaster to get into a closet or room…

  • Barnadine_the_Pirate

    The force is and remains understaffed. Batts doesn’t have five years for his five-year plan to take effect, since — rightly or wrongly — he will take the blame for the downhill slide that has come since he took over.

  • Aaron Mirenzi

    “the districts are largely functioning in a reactive mode, responding to
    calls, but doing little else to assert police control in the
    neighborhoods.”

    just curious here…..what would the police be doing to “assert police control”. basically, whats the operational definition here?

    • Ty Quando

      Remember Office Mike, the beat cop on Abbott & Costello? Now, you get it?

  • Ty Quando

    So, our national government pays trillions to send “peacekeepers” overseas to Arab countries for the same reason that we need these peacekeepers in our city, but the cities are left to fend on their own dwinding budgets unable to keep Americans safe.

    • Aaron Mirenzi

      exactly. isn’t the BGF a terrorist organization? on American soil?

    • Michael B

      It is illegal for the US to use military forces to enforce civil law.

      If we were to declare martial law and put 10,000 troops in the city, what would you have them do to “keep the peace?”

  • River Mud

    It’s hard to believe that a police force that arrests 10% of residents every year, is infiltrated by organized crime, and that holds out “10 years” as a “long sentence” for murder……. has any problem efficiently carrying out its mission.

    • Barnadine_the_Pirate

      What is your basis for believing that the BCPD is “infiltrated by organized crime”?
      Also, just because the BCPD makes a certain number of arrests each year does not mean that the BCPD arrests that number of different individuals each year. I can promise you that there are a great number of people who manage to get arrested multiple times in the same calendar year.

  • Matthew Riesner

    Maybe the folks in this city should put together their own peacekeepers and punish lawbreakers themselves by using various forms corporal punishments (ie caning, branding), stockades, public shame by reminding the public of ones conduct, and banishment from a neighborhood. It will probably be much more of a deterrent to criminals than the mess that is the current official “police,” “court system.” and “prison system” we have in place now.

    • Michael B

      Isn’t that the kind of vigilante justice that the city condemned when Zimmerman was accused of “taking the law into his own hands” by following Trayvon Martin?

      • Matthew Riesner

        Justice is not always pretty and non-controversial but its better than no justice at all. At some point in every civil society, everyday people organize to keep order (eventually this creates police departments) and if the current organizations trusted with justice and public safety can not do so, its time for the citizens to put together their their own forces with the intent of pursuing and administering justice.

  • Aaron Mirenzi

    decriminalize drugs, vamp up the punishment for illegal gun possession.

    • Barnadine_the_Pirate

      The feds won’t let you decriminalize drugs (and Baltimore City couldn’t do it on its own anyhow) and the sentence for illegal gun possession is 5 w/o parole.

      • Aaron Mirenzi

        just curious, why couldn’t Baltimore do that on its own?

        • Barnadine_the_Pirate

          Because Baltimore is not sovereign, the State is. If localities had the power to pass laws trumping state and federal laws, nobody on the Eastern Shore would pay taxes or go to integrated schools.

          • Matthew Riesner

            We may not be able to change state and federal laws but the city (with it’s own police force) could choose to turn a blind eye to certain drugs sold in particular ways and choose to have heavier enforcement and pursue more serious charges when it comes to guns.

          • Barnadine_the_Pirate

            That is certainly true, but that’s not “decriminalization.” That’s just selective enforcement.

          • Matthew Riesner

            Not all solutions are pretty or cookie cutter and the city by having it’s own police force can choose which law are enforced. Sometimes, if the law does not work in a certain situation, you need to choose how to interpret it and when to pursue charges. Selective enforcement already is in place, look at how many time you see people blatantly violating traffic or quality of life laws in front of police officers in this city with no action being taken.

          • Barnadine_the_Pirate

            That’s not “decriminalizing,” that’s “make Baltimore a Mecca for every dealer and addict in region.” I think the drug laws are silly and useless, but they must be repealed nationwide, not piecemeal.

          • Aaron Mirenzi

            hey thanks for the clarification in the decrim question. I think Baltimore already is that mecca, at least for drug users out in the surrounding counties, although I only base that on 4 people I knew who lived in the counties and bought heroin in the city. it could get worse by decriminalizing it in the city, but its already somewhat happening.

          • Michael B

            Good theory, except for the fact that most of the people with illegal handguns are the drug dealing organizations and ‘crews,’ and most of the firearm related homicides are happening over control of drug selling territories or drug related robberies.

            The 2nd, smaller number of firearm crimes relate to people who use illegal handguns to rob people to raise money to buy…. drugs.

          • Aaron Mirenzi

            no doubt there is a connection in Baltimore with the illegal drug trade and illegal gun ownership. The problem is that until the last decade police were actively trying to arrest anybody connected with drugs including, and especially, non-violent offenders. This strategy has basically yielded nothing in terms of reducing the problem of drug addiction. Time spent arresting a non-violent drug offender is time taken away from being on a foot patrol , or arresting someone actually committing violence.

          • Aaron Mirenzi

            not sovereign? maybe I don’t know what sovereign means, but to me Baltimore is sovereign to the degree that it creates and enforces laws within its territory. so are you saying that legalizing drugs in Baltimore would be meaningless because the police have to enforce the State law anyways?

          • Barnadine_the_Pirate

            To my knowledge, in fact, there are no Baltimore City laws AGAINST drugs. The charters which allow the counties and the city to pass local ordinances are limited in scope and don’t extend to ordinary criminal laws. The City’s charter is in derogation of the State’s sovereignty; the City has only those powers which the State allows it to exercise under its charter. It most certainly cannot not pass ordinances nullifying State laws.

      • Michael B

        The City PD and STate’s Atty’s Office could choose not to enforce State drug statutes by a) not arresting folks in possession of drugs and b) not prosecuting cases where drugs were involved.

        However, that strategy would be incredibly foolish where 80% of the violent crime in the city is about control of territory for drug-dealing organizations, and where criminals target other drug dealers to rob and murder them.

        The city could go 100 years without making another drug case, but that would simply mean surrendering control of most neighborhoods to the gangs.

  • BSCUT

    Check the top: O’Malley’s White Gorilla Family…

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