Get our free newsletter
When crime gets bad, Chief Charles Ramsey likes to revamp his departmentwhich might just make things worse.
In the spring of 1999, Lorren Leadmonveteran detective, hardworking cop, and member of the Metropolitan Police Department’s (MPD) Cold Case Squadfound himself with a novel assignment: telephones.
After seven years of work on the police unit that investigates old unsolved killings, Leadmon learned that his squad was being downsized, so to speak. Its new roster boiled down to just one nameLeadmon. Most of his former colleagues in the unitwhich once numbered six stronghad been reassigned to the department’s seven police districts. There, they might continue to work their old cases. But officially, they were simply homicide detectives charged with investigating old and new killings alike. Another officer assigned to cold cases now worked out of the FBI’s D.C. field office.
The downsizing left Leadmon as the one person to call in the whole city to find out about an old killing. Families who’d lost loved ones were once able to call the Cold Case Squad and get information on their case. Now, Leadmon could provide only his best guess about just what might be going on with the effort to find their relative’s killer.
“A lot of people had been calling,” Leadmon says. “They were calling in to find out where their case was, what was happening to their case.” And Leadmon, who had his own jacket of cases to work on, had to spend time figuring out which detectives originally had which cases, whether they still had those cases, and where the officers were.
And what Leadmon says he found was that many of those cases just weren’t being investigated.
Leadmon says he tried to knit together an ad hoc Cold Case squad. He kept up much of his normal routine, scheduling interviews with possible witnesses, ferreting out leads, working with a few of the old members of the unit out in the districts. But he says it was impossible to keep up the squad’s original mission: to make a real dent in the city’s 1,700-deep backlog of unsolved murders.
“When [Chief Charles] Ramsey [disbanded the Cold Case Squad], I found it disappointing,” Leadmon says. “On the personal side, it was like a kick in the chest. On the logistical side, was there a bigger plan that I did not comprehend? If it’s there, I don’t see it.”
Leadmon didn’t have to look any further than the newspaper on his own front stoop to learn the reasons behind Ramsey’s plans. The original deep-sixing of the Cold Case Squad came amid a much larger push to demonstrate that the new chief was forcing the clock-punchers at headquarters to hoof it on out to the neighborhoods. The plan sent detectives, including those of the Cold Case Squad, into the city’s seven police districts. It was the third such redeployment in five years, part of a process that had shuttled detectives from the neighborhoods to headquarters and back again.
Some of Leadmon’s old colleagues had better get ready to pack their bags one more time. A year after the Cold Case Squad’s demise, the Washington Post submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to inspect closed case files. Ramsey’s response? Pre-empting the newspaper’s investigation, he called for a review of some 4,000 casesclosed or opendating back a decade. Moreover, two months after the Post’s FOIA request, the department reinstated the Cold Case Squad and created a separate task force for the case reviews.
Leadmon says the move is anything but proactive. “You can re-evaluate yourself to deathit’s not doing those families any good. I could tell you right now, there are a ton of cases that need to be worked. There’s gonna be more cases. The question is, Who’s going to deal with them?”
According to police statistics, during the year the Cold Case Squad was understaffed, the 2nd and 4th Districts didn’t solve a single cold case. The 6th District solved two cases, the 5th solved three, the 1st and 3rd solved five each, and the 7th solved 19.
The reason is simple. Without detectives specifically assigned to cold cases, says Leadmon, most attention naturally turns to the most recent slayings. Increasingly, it seems, if you can get away with murder for a year or so, you can get away with it forever. Executive Assistant Chief Terrance W. Gainer says he can’t even say how many district-based detectives are working on cold cases.
He ought to know the figures. When Ramsey came to the MPD over two years ago, he was given a lengthy honeymoon. The crime rate was down, but the force was still reeling from lousy equipment, inept supervisors, and a dismal homicide closure rate of about 36 percent. The chief took to these challenges in a highly visible way. If one of his officers made mistakes, he vowed, he’d say so in public.
Ramsey held community meetings, convened officers at Constitution Hall for a pep rally, and placated the media with his no-nonsense tone. After a spate of shootings in early 1999, he told the Post: “This has gone on far too long. It’s time it stops, and it stops now.” He said all the things a good police chief needs to say.
But Ramsey is not new anymore. And the current closure rate for all homicide caseslet alone the cold onesnow hovers at 30 percent. Earlier this year, it bottomed out at 23 percent citywide. To appreciate just how bad that is, consider that in 1998, the homicide closure rate in Detroit was 45 percent, in Atlanta it was 66 percent, and in Houston it was 70 percent. And in Chicagothe city where Ramsey was a high-ranking police official before he came to D.C.the closure rate in 1998 was 68 percent.
The reason for those gloomy statistics, cop-watchers suspect, may lie in the same media strategies that made Ramsey such a hit at firstand that helped send all of Leadmon’s colleagues back to the station houses. Any time there is a bump in the crime rate or the weekend body count, Ramsey steps up to a microphone to champion a new procedure or systematic overhaul. Jumps in crime over the last two years have led to the creation of new schedules for officers; an increase in weekend shifts; a new 100-member mobile police force; “open-air mini-stations,” where officers sit under beach umbrellas at different corners of the city; and something called the “power shift,” in which officers flood the streets in the evening hours.
And Ramsey heralds each move as the dawn of a new era. After he moved the detectives out of headquarters in April 1999, Ramsey told the Post: “These people have to start doing their job. It’s accountability; that’s the one thing the mayor has insisted on.”
Two months later, after a string of violent incidents, Ramsey announced sweeping efforts to pump more officers out into the streets. “The days of [criminals] being able to just shoot up and down the streets is over. These little street thugs out there committing crimes randomly, shooting, causing injuries to innocent bystanders…has to stop,” he told the Post.
After a rash of murders this past July, Ramsey has again opted to redeploy. The chief ordered nearly all officers not currently assigned to a district to patrol at least one week a month in uniform. That order affects detectives working on assignments like narcotics and gangs and even the newly reinstated Cold Case Squad. Ramsey says his latest move will be permanent.
There is, of course, a logic to the redeploymentswhich invariably put officers in a more public position, if not always a more effective one. Ramsey has staked his department’s reputation on community policing and prevention tactics. He is betting that putting more officers on the beat will lower the crime rate. But officers suggest that solving crimes is just as important as preventing them.
“If you and I say, ‘We are going to kill this guy,’ there isn’t a damn thing the police can do. If nobody steps forward and gives us a heads-up that this guy is going to get shot, that guy is going to get shot,” explains a sergeant, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution. “Ramsey is reactive, reactive, reactive. You ain’t going to change jack shit, dude. In the meantime, the other [units] in the city are going to falter.”
One troubling fact won’t be addressed by putting a uniformed cop on every corner: Solving murders has become a major problem on the chief’s watch.
As the closure rate continues to slide, officers argue that Ramsey’s redeployment will only make detectives’ jobs that much more difficult.
When Ramsey moved the detectives into the districts, he made them responsible for investigating not just homicides but other violent crimes. Now, a large chunk of the detective corps will be forced to put down their case work, put on uniforms, and patrol neighborhoods for a week out of each month.
“You know that’s going to screw them up,” says another officer, who also requested anonymity. “How are they going to do their job? How are they going to solve their cases? Can you imagine what it’s going to be like for them after six days, and then days off? It’s all politics. It’s been done before.”
Detectives say the new redeployment will hamper their already weakened efforts. “The work atmosphere sucks,” says Detective Joe Fox, who was assigned to the 4th District before going back to the Cold Case Squad. “[The 4th District] was never assigned enough homicide detectives. You’ve got guys coming in on their days off [to find new] murder jackets sitting on their desks.”
And whatever the residents of his upper-Northwest district beat may want by way of police visibility, Lt. Alvin Brownwho supervises the detectives in the 4th Districtsays he desperately needs more detectives at the station house.
Brown’s violent-crime unit has 25 detectives, 12 of whom are tasked to murders. But out of the 25, he says, a handful are usually on leave or on vacation. He adds that all of his detectives spend at least three to four days a week in court. Brown says his requests for added detectives have gone unfulfilled. So far, beyond failing to close a single cold case, his unit has solved only seven murders out of 30 this year.
“We might frighten people, because the [rate] is so low,” says 4th District Sgt. Paul Jordan.
As of Aug. 22, there had been 166 murders in the District; at the same time last year there had been 152, according to police statistics. Now detectives are spending a lot of time looking up old cases for the new task force. Lt. Martin Davis, who supervises detectives in the 7th District, says he’s received requests for about 40 case files.
Predictably, even the basic act of finding the paperwork on unsolved murders is a challenge. Of the first 153 cases reviewed, 36 cases needed additional paperwork, according to Steve Gaffigan, executive director at the MPD’s Quality Assurance Unit. Eighteen of those had missing paperwork, and another 18 needed additional investigating by detectives.
One of the 36 cases was simply missing, Gaffigan says. Leadmon says there are more.
Even Ramsey isn’t so sure about the latest moves to push detectives onto the streets. He says that he believes there are already plenty of officers patrolling the streets but that he is only answering public criticism. “If this doesn’t work, I’ll have to go back to the drawing board,” Ramsey says. “It’s like everything else that you find: A lot of things have been allowed to get off track.” CP