Rounds

News and notes on guns in America

After Trace/BuzzFeed News Investigation, Baltimore Officials Tell Police to Turn Up the Heat on Shooters

Baltimore leaders are pressing the Police Department to direct more resources toward solving violent crimes, following an investigation by The Trace and BuzzFeed News that highlighted how strained detectives at the troubled agency failed to work promising leads, potentially allowing shooters to walk free.

At a public safety hearing on Wednesday, City Council members asked the Baltimore Police Department to provide statistics on detective staffing and clearance rates. “When people commit a crime, especially with a gun, they gotta get caught,” City Councilman Zeke Cohen told police officials at the hearing, citing the investigation.

Brooke Lierman of the Maryland House of Delegates, which has legislative authority over the Police Department, said she is putting together an information request on the detective divisions, and may introduce some reform measures during the next legislative session.

Delegate Kathy Szeliga, who represents two counties that border Baltimore, said she’s setting up a town hall on the city’s crime epidemic that will address its failure to arrest shooters. “We have to turn it around,” Szeliga said. “Otherwise, we’re going to be sitting on the sideline watching the death of our city.”

Dr. Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, said he’s in talks with the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice about creating a homicide and shooting case review process. He said he’s also citing our investigation, and its underlying data, in an upcoming report that will urge the department to shift focus toward solving more shootings.

The Baltimore Police Department’s rate of closing shooting cases, both fatal and nonfatal, had dropped to just 25 percent by 2016 — its lowest in recent history — an analysis of internal police data found. Nearly 2,000 shootings over a recent five-year period remain unsolved. Councilman Brandon Scott said police officials provided statistics after the hearing indicating that the rate has since improved.

Baltimore is not an anomaly: A data analysis by The Trace and BuzzFeed News found the likelihood police will arrest a shooter has plummeted since the 1980s, particularly for surviving victims. Even some of the nation’s most prosperous cities have arrest rates below 20 percent for nonfatal shootings.

Police frequently say that witnesses and victims who refuse to provide information are the primary barrier to making arrests. However, our investigation found that at some agencies, detective staffing is so thin that hundreds, even thousands, of cases don’t even get assigned to a detective.

Baltimore Police officials told us that they assign every shooting. Still, our investigation delves into one case in which witnesses and the victim gave information to detectives that helped them identify three suspects, only for work on the case to grind to a halt after two weeks. In another shooting, a detective admitted he didn’t question potential witnesses who had crowded the scene, nor the man he believed had pulled the trigger.

Detectives also told us that when crime spiked in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death in police custody, they were routinely pulled from their cases for days at a time in order to cover riot duty and patrol shifts.

At the public safety hearing on February 6, Col. Byron Conaway, head of the Criminal Investigations Division, said that a sergeant is now looking through open cases to see if any promising leads were left unworked. But he added that his already-overburdened detectives must still cover patrol shifts.

The department is facing a severe staffing shortage and has more than 500 vacant positions. Conaway emphasized that many divisions are understaffed. “Homicide is short. Robbery is short. [Non-Fatal] Shootings is short,” he said. “And right now I’m faced with putting those bodies in patrol, and that’s what we did over the summertime, is put more bodies in patrol.”

Still, he told the council committee he believes patrol positions should be filled first. “We’re at bare minimum right now,” he said. “But our focus right now is to get individuals in patrol, because we want to get ahead of violence, we don’t want to be reactive.”

The BPD is in the midst of implementing hundreds of reforms as part of a consent decree after federal investigators found widespread police misconduct and discriminatory enforcement of low-level offenses. But few of those reforms focus on improving the arrest rate for violent crimes.

A new police commissioner — Michael Harrison, the former superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department — begins work February 11.  Webster said that presents an opportunity to shift more focus to solving shootings. “I’m hoping the new commissioner will see this [article] as a really critical piece,” Webster said. “If he’s going to come in and drive down shootings, part of it is going to be arresting more shooters.”