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In the spring of 1997, Homicide Detective Benjamin Collins cleared out his desk. Inside a cardboard box, he stacked his reference books, case logs, notebooks, calendars, pens, pencils, and family pictures. Working out of a box was nothing new to the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) veteran.

When he first became a detective in 1994, Collins worked from headquarters, along with all the other homicide caseworkers. By the end of 1995, the Homicide Branch, though stationed in headquarters, was broken into groups to cover the seven police districts. Collins landed in the 6th District. In 1996, Collins and his co-workers were stripped of those assignments and ordered to cover the entire city. In April of 1997, he was moved out of headquarters and into the streets to cover a specific area again, this time the 3rd District. A year later, Collins and his cardboard box made the return trip to HQ. He knew it was just a matter of time before some wise guy moved him out again.

Since the departure of Cmdr. Lou Hennessy in 1995, the unit has been a petri dish for upper-level tinkering. But no matter where police officials located the unit—out in the sticks or at a central location—it still atrophied into one of the worst in the country. When Chief Charles Ramsey took over in April 1998, he inherited a homicide division that closed around 33 percent of its caseload, about half the national average.

Ramsey had a solution—a solution, that is, that had been tried several times by his predecessors. He proposed moving homicide detectives from headquarters back to the district beats.

When Ramsey made his announcement this September to a sea of blue gathered at Constitution Hall, Collins didn’t clap. He knew what to expect once he left HQ. In previous trips to the districts, he had found himself without a cruiser, without video equipment or interrogation rooms, without radios or notebooks. He had been through enough new supervisors, especially the variety that didn’t know how to fill out arrest warrants or handle a crime scene.

Collins sat alone—his partner was boycotting the event—shaking his head. Another move, he thought.

“The closure rate probably won’t improve much, and they will make wholesale changes again,” Collins predicts.

At 8:30 in the morning on Sept. 9, two hours before Ramsey would announce his homicide reorganization, Captain William Corboy received a call from one of the chief’s assistants. Ramsey needed someone to serve as interim homicide commander during the transition back to the districts, and Corboy seemed right for the job. His name had been brought up as a possible homicide commander before. Corboy turned down the offer without hesitation. “It’s just so clear that it would not be a good fit, for them, for me—that’s the way it goes,” Corboy says of his decision.

Corboy didn’t like Ramsey’s plan. “We’ve been down this road before,” he says of the detectives’ redeployment. “I think these things are so self-evident.” He couldn’t handle the unit’s being dismantled again.

It doesn’t take an MPD vet to figure out that Homicide had been put under a more powerful microscope than most forensic evidence. It had become a unit of nomad detectives—bouncing from headquarters to the districts and back—strung along on the whims of consultants and upper management looking for the next quick fix.

Under Hennessy’s command, the unit had racked up a closure rate about 60 percent, and police officials from other cities had come to take notes on the program, according to Hennessy. The model was simple: Homicide detectives worked from headquarters and were assigned to carefully circumscribed beats. Collins, for instance, focused on cases in the 6th District, where he says he boosted the closure rate from 17 percent to 70 percent.

After Hennessy’s ousting by then-Chief Larry Soulsby, the unit stopped assigning specific beats but stayed at headquarters. Detectives were assigned to cases on a helter-skelter basis, regardless of whether they knew the neighborhood. The closure rate plummeted into the low 30s.

Since that method wasn’t working, consultants urged that the unit be decentralized and moved out into the districts. Bereft of a central office to fight for their interests, the detectives were essentially orphaned. They couldn’t get cruisers, radios, and other tools to work their investigations. Closure rates remained dismal. Interim Chief Sonya Proctor, who took control of the department in late 1997, noticed that the homicide unit was in a death spiral of its own and promptly called the detectives back to headquarters.

Although the unit may feel more comfortable at HQ, its closure rate has barely shifted this year, inching up a few percentage points to about 40; in some months, however, the rate has been as low as 29 percent.

And even those numbers may overstate Homicide’s record. According to Executive Assistant Chief Terrance Gainer, 15 percent of 1997’s cases and 30 percent of this year’s cases were closed through administrative channels—meaning they were solved by circumstances such as the killer dying or a suspect confessing to multiple murders. In the past, department brass did their best to make the administrative closure rate look low—a ploy to depict their detectives as hard-working murder sleuths. Ramsey admits that any administrative closure rate exceeding 10 percent is cause for alarm.

Although detectives argue that continuous reshuffling and the addition of poorly trained supervisors account for the unit’s terrible performance, Ramsey prefers other explanations. In August, he reviewed the homicide division and found no accountability among detectives for investigations in the unit.

“I can get a 40 percent clearance rate without them,” Ramsey says. He did the next best thing: ending Homicide as we know it. Under Ramsey’s reorganization plan, homicide detectives are to be deployed to the districts—again—and placed under the direct supervision of captains and lieutenants. They are to be divided into two units—violent crime and property crime. No detective can now say he “works at Homicide.”

Instead of confining their investigations to murders, detectives will now also look into sex crimes, burglaries, and violent assaults. Ramsey is also considering dropping the cold-case unit, a seven-member team that investigates old murders, and giving such cases back to the districts.

If Ramsey is serious about these changes, says an eight-year homicide veteran, he should be prepared to watch the closure rate sink further. “They have to figure out now who is going to handle all these old cases,” says the detective. “Cases will probably get reassigned; people will be running out of their areas into their old areas to finish cases. That’s one of the old problems. There’s been too many changes, and nothing has gone on too long to straighten things out and really work.”

Ramsey admits that implementing the latest reorganization will be hard. Detectives were originally set to hit the districts in October, but the plan wasn’t ready. The current start date is Dec. 27, but Ramsey says that the new program’s timetable could be pushed back until February.

The extensions will give the chief plenty of time to deal with the plan’s detractors. “It sucks. It sucks,” says Detective Christopher Kauffman of the new plan. He has a right to be annoyed. Kauffman says he has had to move his desk eight times in the last five years. Every time a new supervisor came in, he had to pick up and move. The shuffling became such a routine that he kept a handcart by his desk at all times.

“I’ve thought about leaving the department,” Kauffman admits. “I’ve thought about going to a different jurisdiction. I’ve got 10 years now, [but] things are kind of difficult—I have my retirement to think about.”

So does Collins, who says he felt like giving up during his last tour with the 3rd District. On his drive from Severn, Md., to the office, he would daydream about getting a new supervisor or a new partner. And when he arrived, it seemed he always got bad news, whether it was from upper management, the newspaper, or the Internal Affairs Division. Usually, he says, it was another order to move.

“Every six to seven months, you found yourself with a new partner, new supervisors, and a totally different emphasis on how the cases were worked,” Collins explains. “You were moved physically. There was no continuity. Everything was unstable. You didn’t have any idea where you’d be working from month to month.”

He once had a 100 percent closure rate. It’s half that now. “It’s difficult for me to work in the same level that I worked in the past,” Collins admits. “I don’t have the same zest or energy.” Collins says he will give Ramsey’s plan eight months before making any career decisions.

“I don’t see it getting any better,” he says.CP