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The Nose

Alarm Bells

Posted 9/2/1998

The Nose--along with every other sentient being on the planet--has long suspected that not only are the rich very different from you and me, but their emergencies get treated differently too. And never more so, apparently, than when they live just down the block from Police Commissioner Thomas Frazier.

Just after 1 a.m. Aug. 20, the Nose heard the whirling blades of Foxtrot, the city's police helicopter. It's a pretty common sound in many parts of the city, but we couldn't recall hearing it before in the commissioner's Roland Park neighborhood, and certainly not for such a long duration. Curiosity aroused, we flipped on our police scanner and heard what struck us as a startling array of cop resources being deployed for a mere property crime.

The initial call was a report of four open windows and a burglar alarm sounding, five houses down the street from the commissioner's abode. What followed surprised even a veteran scanner freak such as the Nose. Along with calling in Foxtrot to make multiple flyovers of the area, police brought in a K9 unit, crime-lab staffers, a property-crimes detective, the Northern District operations lieutenant, and multiple patrol officers. Not only was there massive police presence, but the police dispatcher did something the Nose has never heard before: all other police in the Northern District were kept from using their radios for 22 minutes.

It's routine for dispatchers to "hold the air," as it's called, during emergencies, but never for more than a few minutes. As soon as enough police are on the scene of an incident, the air is released for normal radio traffic. The reason is obvious: Other cops in the district need to be able to communicate what they are doing too. During the 22 minutes Northern's air was held, the Nose heard an officer try to call in information on a car stop; he was told to stay off of the air. Another officer reporting firearms being discharged in another part of the district was also never heard from again.

City police spokesperson Rob Weinhold says the handling of the Roland Park incident had nothing to do with its proximity to the commissioner's home. "The officer who responds to the scene [first] has the discretion to utilize the resources available in an effort to abate the problem," he says of the unusually forceful police response. As for the lengthy radio silence, he says, "Typically, the dispatcher will keep the air clear until the officer at the scene communicates there are no other safety concerns."

But a retired police communications supervisor termed the 22-minute communication breakdown "outrageous." "I never held the air that long for a cop shot!"

Frazier's neighbor with the open windows was out of town on the night in question, so the burglar-alarm company notified someone who was on its call list--that person went to the house and told police it was normal for those four windows to be open. There was no evidence of breaking and entering, and the police could not determine why the alarm went off. In total, officers were at the house for an hour and a half. During that period the Nose heard another call for an open window from another part of the district. Only one officer responded to that one.

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