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Mobtown Beat

Police, Unplugged

Police Headquarters Still Plagued by Hurricane Damage

By Terrie Snyder | Posted 11/5/2003

Nearly six weeks after Tropical Storm Isabel slashed through the area, the Baltimore Police Department is still plagued by problems caused by the torrents of water that flooded its old headquarters' basement, which houses the department's Evidence Control Unit, and knocked out the building's power.

The elevators of the 10-story building on the 600 block of East Fayette Street still don't work because there isn't enough power to run them; the temporary generators powering most of the building spewed so many fumes into the building that they had to be removed and placed outside on East Baltimore Street; parts of the communications center, which is running on separate generators, have twice lost power; and evidence that was badly damaged when four feet of water poured into the evidence room has still not been decontaminated.

Lt. John Miller, the acting commander of the unit overseeing the damage cleanup, says that if everything goes according to plan, full power could be restored around Nov. 20 or 21 at the earliest. The department is planning to make massive changes to the building's electrical system--essentially, all of the equipment that powers the building must be replaced or reconstructed--and if those changes don't go smoothly, it could be even longer before things are back to normal.

So for the moment, everyone who works above the fourth floor of the old headquarters building has to climb flights of steps to reach their offices--sometimes with witnesses or crime suspects in tow. The department's new headquarters building is attached to the older building by an atrium on the second floor and walkways on the third and fourth floors, which can be used by police employees for easier access to their offices. (There is also a walkway on the fifth floor, where Commissioner Kevin Clark's office is located, but several police sources have told City Paper that they're not supposed to use that walkway.) The communications center is being powered by separate backup generators on the fourth floor, where the unit is housed, and the roof.

After the storm came through, people working throughout the older building complained about diesel fumes from the temporary generators on the street, which blasted up through the stairwells. Police commanders say that problem was rectified within a few days. Some employees still complain about fumes reaching them, though all acknowledge that the situation is better than it was when the generators were first put in place.

On Oct. 23, one of the temporary generators housed in the garage area of the new building spewed out heavy fumes that leaked into the first floor. That floor--which houses the department's public affairs office and the public entrance to the buildings--had to be shut down. The entrance was closed, and the employees who work in public affairs were sent to other parts of the building, with the exception of public affairs director Matt Jablow, who stayed in his office to answer phones despite the fumes.

During the early morning hours of Oct. 24, the temporary generator causing the problem was moved outside onto East Baltimore Street, where it will remain until permanent generators are installed inside the building. When it was moved, there was an unexpected glitch, though: According to Maj. Gary Martin, who heads the communications department, the move cut off the telephones on his floor. When the phones went down so did the computer modems used to check for outstanding warrants, so dispatchers were unable to check if people stopped by officers that evening were wanted for any other crimes.

For a week the department denied that there had been any problem, even though CP had been listening to a police scanner at the time and read back to police a conversation between the Northern District dispatcher and an officer who called in to request a warrant check. The dispatcher told the officer, "The system went down because of the generators. Citywide [channel] went on the air and said the system was down until 6:30."

The system was down for about six hours. Martin says it won't happen again because the department has fixed the system so electrical glitches won't affect the modem connections.

In the meantime, it is still unclear how the flooding of the main evidence room will affect criminal cases in the courts. Bridget Sheppard, who heads the city Public Defender's office's felony unit, says she was allowed to examine the evidence room. Sheppard says she was told that police took water samples to find out what substances were in the water that flooded the room so the evidence could be decontaminated. For the foreseeable future, she has instructed lawyers in her unit to routinely check with police to see if evidence for their cases has been damaged by flooding. After enumerating what types of evidence the water had hit--most notably, drugs--Sheppard quipped, "What kind of contamination do you think they'll find?"

So far, Sheppard says, she is unaware of any cases that have been thrown out of court because of the problem but does know that some cases have been postponed.

Although City Paper has repeatedly asked for comment from Commissioner Clark regarding the problems in the building, all requests have been denied. On Nov. 1, a CP reporter tried to speak to Clark in person but was physically blocked by two bodyguards.

When asked how much money Isabel has cost the department to date--including the repairs being made to the building's electrical--Lt. Miller said he does not yet know.

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