Doing Their Part
Amid murder crisis, City Council looks for answers—any answers it can get
Published: January 15, 2014
You might think that a beat cop on a foot deployment in a “hot zone” (Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts’ term for an area of high-potential violence) would know why he was out there. City police are highly trained observers, many with years of experience spotting hand-to-hand drug transactions and noticing “furtive movements” that give police the “probable cause” to stop a person on the street and check him or her out.
You’d be wrong, though, according to Lt. Col. Darryl DeSousa.
“We need to do a better job of telling our guys why they’re there,” DeSousa, the department’s chief of patrol, told a City Council hearing on Jan. 7. He then listed the observations his patrolmen should be making, including the body language of the people on the street and the potential for weapons. “They need to know what they’re looking for. And we’re actually going out and doing inspections,” DeSousa said.
This revelation led seamlessly to the next obvious question: 6th District Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton asked about a particular block in her district, and whether it’s “safe to say that a number of these crimes are around bars and liquor outlets.” When the commander agreed, Middleton replied, “Yeah, I just wanted to hear you say it.”
And so went the council’s “grilling” (as The Sun called it) of the police. After a year with 235 murders and a week with eight more, the police commanders were called before the City Council, which demanded answers not to urgent policy questions but to seemingly random queries. Batts himself was absent.
Deputy Commissioner John Skinner stood tall next to DeSousa throughout. He outlined several recent busts of what he described as major criminals, plus new efforts to have patrol officers from adjacent police districts share information. “Criminals on the street don’t have a concept of Northern or Northwest districts,” Skinner said.
Middleton asked why the department was not doing more gun buy-backs.
The police brass smiled agreeably.
Councilman Jim Kraft complained about the department’s online report system, which allows citizens to report minor crimes like car break-ins over the internet to save them the time of waiting for a patrol officer to arrive and take the report. People in Kraft’s Southeastern District want to see a cop, he said. “And when they get there, the officer inevitably says, ‘Well, it’s your fault for living here in the first place.’”
DeSousa explained that a police officer is dispatched whenever a constituent asks for one. But the discussion about priority assignments—that cops need to run after shootings and fights and stabbings and the like ahead of someone’s missing bicycle, even if the bike person called it in first—got little attention.
The police said they had not jumped on violence in the Western District early enough last year. They said they have to do a better job of dismantling the street gangs that drive much of the violence. They said they are getting much better tips and cooperation from citizens these days than they did last year at this time.
What about cops driving around with emergency equipment on, Kraft asked. He meant the light bars on top of cop cars, the back half of which remain lit while patrol cars tool around at night.
DeSousa explained that the lights-on policy was designed to “create more of an atmosphere of police omnipresence” in the community.
The blue-and-red lights are driving chatter in Kraft’s neighborhoods that crimes have been committed when in fact none have been, the councilman said. “People are complaining because it’s affecting their property values. That’s an issue,” Kraft said. “We need to reexamine that.”
The next morning, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake urged “all hands on deck” in the fight against violent crime. She said she was optimistic that the fight would be won. “For Baltimore to be the city we all want it to be, all of us have to be doing something,” she said.
> Email Edward Ericson Jr.