By Ananda Shorey
WASHINGTON – Maryland police had a fiery reaction to a new university study that suggests some homicide cases are going unsolved because officers do not follow basic practices and procedures.
“Criminologists can take a hike,” said Maj. Nicholas Valltos, commander of the criminal investigations division of the Prince George’s County Police Department. Valltos said he is tired of academics and so-called experts who sit in classrooms and say police are not doing their jobs.
“It is really easy for people from academia who have never been a police officer to tell us how, where and why to do our job,” Valltos said. “They are saying this from a point of academia, not from a real-life standpoint.”
But Charles Wellford, who wrote the University of Maryland study with co- author James Cronin, said he does understand what goes on with homicide cases and that he realizes how much time and effort goes into solving homicides.
The study, released last month, said that while 69 percent of homicides are currently solved nationwide, that closure rate could increase by about 20 percent if the police investigating the crimes did solid, basic work.
It said it is the basic, but significant, steps that are not being followed, such as getting to the crime scene quickly, making sure enough officers are on the scene, accurately measuring the crime areas and following up on witness information.
“These findings may seem rather basic, but that is exactly the point,” Wellford said in a prepared statement. “With some relatively simple procedure modification, law enforcement agencies should be able to appreciably increase the number of arrests following homicides.”
But police across Maryland said they are already doing the basic police work that the university study says they are missing. Valltos said his agency, which he said had a 70 percent closure rate in 1999, does more than the study’s authors suggest.
Frederick Police Lt. Thomas Chase said there is not one crime that a police department devotes more resources and time to than a homicide.
“I feel very comfortable saying that, as a practice, police departments follow every lead in a homicide and continue to pursue leads beyond the time they would pursue leads in other things,” Chase said.
“Obviously these criminologists have never worked a homicide, nor do I think they have had much exposure to a police department that is conducting a homicide,” he said.
The Washington County Sheriff’s Department is able to put a lot of effort and attention into each case because it has relatively few homicides, said Lt. Doug Mullendore.
“We have no unsolved homicides with this agency,” Mullendore said. “I feel we do a very credible job for a rural county here in Maryland.”
Washington County is able to take a forensic chemist to all major crime scenes, Mullendore said, and the department’s procedures are “punctual and correct.” He wondered if it is possible for departments in large urban areas to dedicate all the resources to a homicide that the study suggests.
But Valltos said large departments can, and do, dedicate those resources. Where the study recommends three to four detectives be assigned to each homicide, for example, he said Prince George’s County can have as many as 10 officers assigned to some murder cases.
“We have an obligation to the citizens to follow up on the investigations,” Valltos said. “I don’t care if it is a doctor, priest or a prostitute — no matter what that person’s status in life is, they were somebody’s brother, sister, mother or father.”
He said there are other factors working against police that the criminologists failed to consider, such as drug-related homicides that occur in areas where potential witnesses are too intimidated to go to police. He said that is the case in a lot of the homicides that his department deals with.
The opposite is true in Montgomery County, which closed 11 of its 12 murders in 1999, said a police department spokesman. Derek Baliles said one reason for that high closure rate is that drug-related violence is not a big problem, and murder suspects often turn themselves in.
“We are very fortunate to have excellent detectives and people who call up to tell us they did it,” Baliles said. “We like the politeness of Montgomery County.”
Valltos said that is not the case in Prince George’s, and that if criminologists want to know what really goes on, they will have to come out and work with the police.
“Strap it on, baby, and let’s see you get out here and do it,” he said. “If they want to come and talk about stuff after that, rock and roll.”