Baltimore police have temporarily reassigned three homicide detectives from the cold-case squad to conduct background checks on new recruits for the rest of the year.
The three officers represent the majority of the agency's five-detective squad, which investigates the thousands of unsolved murders in the city. The department spokesman said the move is designed to help the agency plug holes created by an increasing rate of departures.
The department still has 41 detectives investigating homicides and other death cases.
"The commissioner has talked about our attrition rate, and the direct impact it has against our fight on violent crime," said Lt. Eric Kowalczyk, the department's acting spokesman. "Getting people through the hiring process is critical in that component, and we're temporarily using their expertise in investigations so we can expedite the hiring of academy classes."
The department's attrition rate has been well-publicized by Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts, who said an increase in homicides and shootings during his first full year was tied to a high rate of attrition. The department has more than 220 vacancies out of its nearly 3,000-strong force, with hundreds more on suspension or medical leave.
The detailing of detectives from homicide comes as the unit — which investigates all unattended deaths, kidnappings and critical missing-persons cases — is poised to go through major changes.
The Police Department's recently released strategic plan suggests that detectives should be assigned to geographic areas and recommends stripping the unit of its jurisdiction over police-involved shootings.
The cold-case unit recently took on the authority to investigate any officer-involved shootings, a precursor to the creation of a new team to investigate shootings and other incidents where officers use force. Kowalczyk said the change will allow the homicide detectives to focus on their active cases.
Mothers like Judy Godsey, whose 21-year-old son, Jamal, was killed in August in Northeast Baltimore, are watching the changes in the unit with interest. With each day the case goes unsolved, she said, she feels a resolution slipping away.
Police say Godsey's case has not gone cold and is being actively investigated. But recently, Judy Godsey said she saw the detective assigned to her case on television investigating a high-profile police-involved death and realized that his caseload has grown since Jamal's death.
"If you have 200 cases, each case will require a lot of digging," Godsey said. "When you get another one, what do you do with the first one? You can't do them justice, because you have to spread yourself so thin."
The unit's closure rate for homicides this year is about 54 percent, officials said recently, a slight increase over the same time last year. The rate has been on a steep decline here and across the country — in the 1980s, city police regularly solved more than 70 percent of cases. But for cities around the size of Baltimore, detectives solved just 51 percent of cases last year, according to FBI statistics.
That leaves a sizable number of cold cases. Roger Nolan, a founding member of the cold-case squad, led it for 15 years until his retirement in 2009. "If they took everybody in the Police Department and assigned them to cold cases, they would still be greatly outnumbered and overburdened," Nolan said. "There's just so many."
But he recalled cases, some decades-old, that detectives were able to solve. "When you get a clue," he said, "you've got to work it until you exhaust it."