For decades, the challenge of how to make Baltimore safer has been tangled up in a snarl of old and deep problems:
Poverty, deindustrialization, redlining, racial bias among police officers, hostility from a mistrustful community, to name a few.
Then there are the many questions about changing the direction of policing:
Reconsider zero tolerance? Reject it and embrace community policing? Bring about true discipline for bad behavior by police? Add officers to the force? Conduct real audits of the department? Switch out the police commissioner and command staff? Disband the whole thing (as Camden did)?
While debate about these important issues churns along, we shouldn’t lose sight of one fundamental fact:
BPD isn’t very good at performing basic functions of policing – even simple things like collecting videos in the field and following up with victims.
Just a Shot Away
In a recent op-ed in The Brew, I described the poor performance by detectives as they attempted to bring one of the perpetrators of armed robbery to justice.
An armed robbery is just a shot away, or a cut away, from becoming a homicide.
Across Baltimore, there is growing concern that the police response to robberies is not adequate. A 13% increase in robberies so far this year underscores this concern.
There are a few obvious things that the police and mayor could do to catch robbers and, especially, to prevent serial robberies.
Here are EIGHT STEPS that should be easy – and inexpensive – to implement:
1. The Citywide Robbery Unit needs to become truly “citywide” by dispatching its detectives directly to the scene of armed robberies.
In my case, a patrol officer drove me to the robbery unit’s office in a converted warehouse in Remington. This simple act took a valuable patrol officer off the street for an hour.
Patrol officers need to stay on patrol. The detectives need to go out on the street, interview victims in the community and look for clues that might be obvious to a trained eye, but not obvious to a victim.
There’s been 4,853 robberies so far in 2017. That’s 551 more robberies (13%) than the same period in 2016. —BPD Uniform Crime Report, 10/23/17.
2. First responders need to be trained to immediately track stolen cell phones.
In a previous armed robbery (it was an unlucky year for me), I had to recover my stolen cell phone by myself. The detectives never followed up. I got tired of waiting for them and taught myself how to track my GPS-enabled Android phone. It was easy. If the police had done it, they might have been able to catch the robbers.
3. First responders need to carry a universal form that allows victims to authorize their banks to directly notify the police when people try to use stolen credit cards.
Plastic has become the common currency of many segments of the population, especially those on fixed incomes. Social Security and other government agencies require participants to receive direct payments on debit cards. Stolen cards should be reported sooner, rather than later.
The department’s authorization form could be scanned and uploaded using a simple scanning app on the officers’ cell phones. Baltimore Police should establish standing protocols for obtaining information from the banks that issue credit cards. Time is of the essence in preventing credit card theft.
4. Video monitoring has become ubiquitous in modern America. Patrol officers should be issued thumb drives to collect video in the field, immediately after robberies take place.
The patrol officers in Baltimore County seem to have mastered this basic investigative skill. The city police have not.
Mayor Catherine Pugh’s crime plan, updated in July, has not turned the tide. In the last four weeks, homicides increased 12% over 2016 and total shootings are up 33%. —BPD Uniform Crime Report, 10/23/17.
5. Twenty-four-hour convenience stores and gas stations are part of the infrastructure of street crime. Almost all of them have video surveillance systems.
As part of the permit process for 24-hour retailers, the city should require these establishments to instantly stream video to a cloud server for use by law enforcement agencies.
In my case, the police fumbled – for weeks – trying to subpoena video from the store where my stolen card was used. Ordinary citizens monitor their homes, babies, even dogs in real time from their cell phones and laptops. It isn’t that hard to do.
6. When the police obtain video images of someone using a stolen bank card, they should immediately enter the pictures in a face recognition program.
Facial recognition algorithms are very sophisticated. Microsoft’s Azure and Amazon’s Web services offer facial recognition processes on line. Google claims an extremely high success rate at recognizing faces.
This does not have to become a gold-plated procurement program by the police. It would take a reasonably skilled person about a half hour to set up one of these programs. Servers with state-of-the-art security can be leased from Microsoft and Amazon at very reasonable rates. The police need to do this.
At a September public safety forum, Mayor Pugh said her energies were focused on luring Amazon’s second headquarters to Baltimore.
Armed robbery usually isn’t an entry-level offense. Most robbers have a mug shot on file somewhere. Once a facial recognition software program is established, the police should collect mug shots from Central Booking, the various lockups in Central Maryland, the Juvenile Justice system, and from Parole and Probation. They should let the computer look for matches.
Facial recognition of images from video might not provide police with probable cause to arrest a suspect, but it certainly would narrow their search. For example, the woman who was accused of using my stolen card at a 7-11 had been arrested on other charges six weeks before I was robbed. There was a fresh mug shot that would have connected her to the store’s video.
7. When police obtain video of suspected robbers, they need to find a better method of circulating photos to the public and offering rewards. The Baltimore Police rely on Metro Crime Stoppers, a venerable non-profit that seems to have fallen behind the times.
In the still-open case of Sebastian Dvorak, MCS plastered East Baltimore with pictures of the victim, not the suspects. This did little more than torture the victim’s grieving friends and family.
Metro Crime Stoppers advertises rewards for tips, but the organization’s most recent IRS 990 forms, downloaded from the Guidestar.org organization, show that it paid awards of $5,680 in 2013, $990 in 2014, and $7,425 in 2015. The operators of the non-profit are well intentioned, but the scale of their effort doesn’t seem to be helping to stop crime.
8. Police need to serve open warrants on defendants who are locked up in other jurisdictions.
Warrant squads are great at conducting dramatic early morning arrests of suspects. The mundane task of driving to Towson to serve multiple warrants on the woman accused in my case seems to be outside of the scope of their operation.
The Maryland Judiciary’s online case search database shows that she has four open warrants from Baltimore City. One of them dates back to March 2015. She has been incarcerated in Towson since June and no one at BPD has had the presence of mind to serve the warrants on her.
Needed: Resolve and Common Sense
None of the suggestions outlined here require mastery of exotic skills. They aren’t overly labor-intensive and can be implemented more quickly than the crime prevention proposals outlined by the mayor over the summer and repeated in a recent public safety forum.
What’s needed is resolve and common sense.
Bottom line to Police Commissioner Kevin Davis and Mayor Pugh: You need to step up your game.
Mark J. Adams, a former newspaper publisher, is a resident of Upper Fells Point. Read his first-person narrative: Where are the police? BPD’s culture of complacency.