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Mobtown Beat

Out of Control

Police Evidence Control Room Flooded by Isabel

By Terrie Snyder | Posted 9/17/2003

The Baltimore City Police Department's Evidence Control Unit was flooded by Hurricane Isabel, and much of the evidence in the city's upcoming criminal cases may have been contaminated, according to numerous police sources. In the words of several of those sources, the four feet-plus of water that flooded the basement of the old headquarters building in the 600 block of East Fayette Street, where the main evidence room is housed, at the bottom of the indoor garage, "destroyed" the unit. Sources also say that building's electrical systems were so damaged--including the computers in the police dispatch center--that it may take up to a month to bring all the systems back on line.

Deputy Commissioner Kenneth Blackwell says that drug evidence, which is stored in plastic bags inside plastic containers inside the main evidence room, was moved to a different part of the building in the three days before Isabel hit as a "precaution." However, a police source familiar with the situation inside the evidence room says that there may be severe problems in cases where large amounts of marijuana were seized. The marijuana was never moved out of the evidence room, and after the flood large bags of pot were floating atop the other debris, evidence tags either torn off or illegible, that source says.

DNA and other fluid evidence stored in refrigeration in the department's crime lab did not suffer damage because when power to the building went out Blackwell ordered an emergency generator to be hooked up in the room.

Margaret Burns, spokeswoman for Baltimore City State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy, says that at least two drug cases have already been affected by the evidence-room flood. In one case, Burns says, "the prosecutor was told that the officer and the drugs were not available because Evidence Control was under water." She says the prosecutor in that case is seeking a postponement.

Blackwell says police officials had no idea that the basement would be completely flooded by Isabel, and he says police inspectors are still trying to evaluate how much evidence was contaminated and how many criminal cases might be affected. Additionally, they are trying to determine how long it will take to get electricity fully restored to the building. Blackwell says it might take as long as four weeks.

Sources say the flooding started around 2 a.m on Friday, Sept. 19, when pipes in the garage that are connected to city storm drains started backing up into the old part of the headquarters building. The 10-story building, which was built in the late 1960s, is connected by an atrium and walkways to the newer five-story part of the building constructed in the late 1990s. Within two hours, at least four feet of water had flooded into the basement garage area of the old building, where the main evidence room is located; the new part of the building was not affected. By Saturday night the Maryland National Guard and city Department of Public Works were called in to pump the water out of the building.

When the flooding first started, sources say, water went crashing through the garage and headed down a ramp "straight at" the evidence room. As the water in the garage rapidly rose, officers who had parked inside were warned to get their cars out. One officer who was with a group who had left the building as the flooding started says that when they returned they were told by a security supervisor that the evidence room "is no longer as we used to know it." When they asked what he meant, the source says, the security supervisor told them that the evidence room was "destroyed."

When City Paper asked to see the main evidence room, police spokesman Matt Jablow refused to allow a reporter and photographer in to view the damage to the building. "We're not going to have reporters and photographers traipsing through there," Jablow said.

The evidence room wasn't the only part of the old police headquarters building that was damaged, although the destruction in the basement was the most severe. Blackwell says of electrical equipment housed in the basement, "the relays and transformers were substantially damaged." Baltimore Gas and Electric spokespeople say the utility company was notified at 6:20 a.m. , Friday, that power was out at police headquarters. BGE restored power to the building Saturday night, but because of internal electrical damage some parts of the building remained without power. Blackwell says the police department called in both BGE and outside contractors to determine the repairs needed to fix the electrical system.

The city's 911 center and police and fire dispatch centers on the fourth floor of the older building were kept running by a backup generator housed in the Wolman Municipal Building several blocks away. As a precaution in case the 911 and dispatch centers went down, several operators and dispatchers were sent to a backup communications center to ensure that there would be no disruption of service.

Telephones in other parts of the building were damaged, so members of the homicide unit were sent to work in the public affairs unit's office on the first floor of the new building, where they could still make calls.

Throughout the weekend and into Monday, the electrical problems at police headquarters continued. The elevators weren't working, there was no lighting in large parts of the building, and even the emergency lights in the stairwells were out. Numerous police sources say they had to use flashlights to get around. Although phone service was restored on some floors by Monday, including in the eighth-floor homicide office, other floors were still without dial tones. On Monday afternoon, all floors above the fourth-floor communications center were evacuated because of lack of power and complaints from many workers that fumes from the basement were spewing out of the stairwells. Blackwell says that, because of complaints about the fumes, the fire department was called in to check the air quality (which it found "reading absolutely normal," he says).

It may take police some time to figure out how many cases have been hurt by the evidence room flood, Blackwell says.

"Once the crisis is over," Burns says, there will be "an opportunity for Mrs. Jessamy and the commissioner to meet," to figure out how criminal prosecutions will be affected.

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