Sidebar April 2007

On Baltimore's Mean Streets

Jeremy Kahn rides along with Baltimore's Homicide Operations Squad in search of murder witnesses

"Yo, Darnell there? This Donte.” Detective Richard Valenzia is speaking in a high, nasal voice, a voice that is not his own, a voice that is meant to sound like anything but that of a white cop. “No? Where he at?” Valenzia, sitting in the backseat of the unmarked white van, flips his cell phone closed. “Shit,” says the detective, reverting to his usual, deeper timber. “She said he just left the house.”

“Fuck,” Sergeant Seth Roussey says from behind the wheel as he swings the van around the corner, slowing to eyeball a group of young black men in hooded sweatshirts hanging out on the West Baltimore street. “The problem is there are so many goofs out,” he says.

Roussey and Valenzia work homicide and on this late, sunny November afternoon they are on the hunt. They’ve just narrowly missed finding their quarry—a reluctant witness needed for an upcoming trial—in a house where they know he’s been staying. Valenzia, by disguising his voice, had hoped to fool the woman who answered the phone into revealing the witness’s location. But she was unsure and now the detectives have to hope to find him out on the streets.

This is how Roussey, Valenzia, and the other detectives on Baltimore’s Homicide Operations Squad spend their days and often their nights. In Baltimore, as in many other large American cities, witnesses skip court dates—either out of fear or irresponsibility—with such regularity that prosecutors have taken to arresting them to compel their appearance. Many of these witnesses are hardly innocent bystanders: fully a quarter of the homicide witnesses the police are ordered to track down have an outstanding warrant for their own arrest for some other crime, which explains why many of them don’t want to be found.

Until 2002, Baltimore’s homicide detectives often had to waste precious resources and time trying to haul such uncooperative witnesses into court. Now the Homicide Operations Squad handles most of this work, freeing other detectives to work cases, look for clues and track down suspects. Every year since the unit’s founding, the number of witnesses it has been sent to find has increased, from 325 in 2003 to 375 in 2005. When I rode along with them in mid-November 2006, the unit was already looking for its 414th witness of the year.

The detectives assigned to hunt for witnesses go after their targets with the same zeal and using the same tactics that other homicide detectives use to pursue murder suspects—they ride in unmarked vehicles, stake out locations, search houses, interrogate friends and relatives, and even pay informants. “We have looked for people for a week solid, we’ve tracked their cell phones, staked out their place of work, and pursued them across the state,” says Lt. Brian Matulonis, who heads Baltimore’s Homicide Operations Squad. “We got that person, bring them in, and because we got the witness, [the defendant] took a plea.”

Sometimes the tactics are a tad unorthodox. One night Sergeant Alonzo Moreland and detective Byron Conaway—who, apart from Matulonis’ homicide squad, search for missing witnesses in non-fatal shootings and gun cases—are assigned to deliver a summons. Afraid to be seen talking to the police in her neighborhood lest she be branded a “snitch,” the witness has asked the detectives to meet her at work. This request is common. Merely to be seen talking to the police in many Baltimore neighborhoods can be dangerous. And even though Moreland and Conaway are both black, affording them a bit more anonymity in many Baltimore neighborhoods than a white detective would have, there is still a risk. What’s unusual in this case is where the woman works. She is a stripper on The Block, Baltimore’s notorious red light district.

While Moreland waits in the unmarked car outside on the strip club, the 31-year-old Conaway, wearing oversize hooded gray sweatshirt and jeans, flashes his badge to the bouncer guarding the door, enters, and climbs upstairs. Inside the dark club, with its pulsating lights and throbbing music, no one makes him for a cop. He has to shake off a bevy of scantily-clad women offering lap dances before he finds the woman he’s looking for. While she pretends to chat him up for a dance, he hands her the summons and tells her that she has to come to court. “All in a day’s work,” Conaway tells me with a smirk when we get back outside.

It’s a rare bit of comedy in a job that sees the detectives dwelling most often in the realm of tragedy. The same night the detectives’ work necessitates a visit to a strip club, I watch them escort a sorrowful 22-year-old black woman from her apartment. She had refused to answer her door until Conaway left her a message on her cell phone threatening to come back with a warrant and knock it down. Now she is going to jail—at least for the night. Tomorrow a judge will decide whether to hold her until she testifies at trial or set conditions for her release. It could be a long time before she’s home again: in one case in Baltimore, a 19-year-old mother of two who had failed to appear for court five times, spent more than five months in jail before a judge finally allowed her out on the condition she give a videotaped deposition.

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Jeremy Kahn is a writer based in Washington, D.C.

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