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Mobtown Beat

Brass Tactics

Police Commanders Interrogate Their Own to Battle Crime

By Terrie Snyder | Posted 4/25/2001

It was imported from New York City along with city Police Commissioner Edward Norris: a method for making police commanders responsible for knowing what kinds of crimes are occurring in their areas of oversight, and coming up with solutions for preventing them. Comstat (short for "computers and statistics") is credited with helping push crime down in New York by providing concrete measures to hold commanders accountable for mobilizing resources to curb crime rather than just collecting after-the-fact reports.

Comstat meetings are held once a week, with officers from each of Baltimore's nine police districts explaining to citywide commanders what kinds of crimes they're facing, and exactly what they're doing to eliminate them. The key, Norris says, is access to information: Rather than waiting for crime numbers to be crunched into generalized reports, police brass get a weekly dose of hard, specific information on what crimes are happening where and how often--and can deploy their resources accordingly.

The setting is reminiscent of a British courtroom in an old movie. Commanders--majors, colonels, and deputy commissioners--sit around a U-shaped table in a room in police headquarters on Fayette Street. Directly in front of them, statistical reports and district maps are projected on a large triptych screen mounted on a wall. To the right of the screen, officers stand in a wooden dock, flags on poles behind them, getting grilled.

Although he brought the system with him to Baltimore when he arrived last year, Norris rarely attends Comstat meetings, leaving the questioning to his deputy commissioners and colonels. But when Southeastern District officers took to the dock to review burglaries, robberies, and car thefts in their territory April 18, the commissioner was on hand. Norris' presence, say some commanders who regularly attend Comstat meetings, usually ratchets up the tension level for those being questioned.

Lt. Michael Pristoop is answering questions about robberies when Norris arrives. There has been a slight increase in commercial robberies in the Southeastern, home to the Fells Point and Highlandtown business districts. Pristoop attributes the spike to a procedural change: Under the previous police administration, shoplifting had been classified as a minor crime; the new regime upgraded it to a major-crime category, commercial robbery, when the shoplifter resists arrest.

As Norris enters, everyone in the room jumps to his or her feet and snaps off a salute. The questioning then continues. Col. Robert Novak, head of the department's Patrol Division, asks Pristoop what kind of forces the Southeastern is deploying to reduce the robberies, most of which seem to be occurring on or just off Eastern Avenue. Increased foot and bicycle patrols, Pristoop answers.

Novak shifts focus, to a cluster of burglaries at a particular group of homes and businesses. Pristoop outlines the victims' losses in detail and announces that more officers have been deployed to work surveillance in the area during night shifts, when most of the burglaries are occurring.

Deputy Commissioner Barry Powell picks up the questioning; he wants to know more about break-ins at two area businesses. Why are burglars suddenly so attracted to a warehouse on North Haven Street and a Chinese restaurant in the 4300 block of Eastern Avenue, both of which have been hit several times, and what's being done about it?

Detective Derrick Layton, of the Southeastern District's Investigative Unit, says he expects arrests for the incidents at the cleaning-supplies warehouse within the "next couple of days." Investigators aren't sure yet why these businesses have been targeted, Layton says, noting that the first time the restaurant was burglarized only a radio was taken; the second time, the thieves took cash and the padlock from the eatery's door.

The questioning becomes more heated when a rash of auto thefts in the district is brought up. Pristoop says many of the car thieves seem to be repeat offenders who aren't getting any jail time when they're arrested. Some are coming into the area from Essex and Dundalk across the Baltimore County line. An analysis of the thefts shows that 70 percent to 80 percent of the stolen vehicles are winding up in the O'Donnell Heights area.

Lt. Paul Blair--who heads the Regional Auto Theft Task Force (RATT), a cooperative venture staffed with both city and Baltimore County officers--says he's put both of his squads in the Southeastern for the past month. Powell asks if RATT is focusing resources in O'Donnell Heights area; Blair replies that his unit is deploying along "travel routes" for the stolen cars.

At this point, Norris weighs in. Why, he wants to know, isn't RATT concentrating in O'Donnell Heights, looking for stolen cars when they arrive? Blair says his unit is supplied with statistics from the department's Planning and Research Division and that the numbers they get aren't in "real time"; by the time his officers get the information, the theft patterns could have changed, he says. Norris jumps all over the lieutenant: How then can RATT identify the "travel routes" if it doesn't know where the cars are ending up? And if its officers do know, why aren't they in those areas? Amid last year's general decline in city crime, Norris notes, car thefts were up.

No direct order was given, and there was no further discussion of the task force's tactics, but the import of the exchange was clear. After he left the meeting, Norris was still steamed on the subject. "They should know where the cars are received," he said in an interview, asserting that RATT needs to improve its methods for tracking thefts.

Except for the exchange over auto thefts, however, this meeting generates no fireworks. The Comstat process, with its martial setting, rapid-fire questioning, and air of feet being held to the fire, seems inherently intimidating--and apparently, until recently it was. Several commanders who are regular attendees say high-level brass decided a few weeks ago to try to make Comstat meetings a little less fearsome, to make the focus more on finding solutions than on assessing blame. (Norris, for his part, denies any conscious change in the tone of the meetings.) In addition, the policy of having each district represented every week--which can stretch the meetings out to most of the workday--was dropped; districts that haven't seen any increases in crime over the past week may get a pass, so meetings can move along faster.

While Norris has obvious reasons for touting the program, it has always impressed top police officials whose tenure long predates Comstat. "It makes people think all on the same page," says one commander who asked not to be identified. When it comes to investigating a particular crime or tackling a particular problem, he says, "others might have ideas I didn't think of."

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