Crime Exchange: What we can learn from each other

Our crime correspondent's job swap with his counterpart on 'The Baltimore Sun' ends today with the two reporters revealing the transatlantic tips that could benefit both cities
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The Independent Online

Mark Hughes in Baltimore

Tell people more about crime

The first thing that I was alerted to in Baltimore, literally, was the openness of their police force in terms of telling the public, and press, about crime. Just 15 minutes after I arrived I was at the scene of a shooting, having been alerted by a post on the police department's official Twitter site. Compare this to Justin's experience in the UK. He arrived at the flat in which he was staying in Kentish Town, north London, on Thursday morning. Just hours before there had been a murder just a few streets away but the Metropolitan Police did not reveal this fact until four days later. The official explanation for the delay in announcing crimes is often "operational reasons". It is understandable that the police need to put their investigation first. And no one is suggesting that they should tell the media or the public details that would lessen their chances of solving the crime. But this must be balanced with the need to inform members of the community on whose behalf they are working. Personally I would want to know if someone has been murdered, raped or robbed yards from my front door.

DNA is not always the answer

At first glance it appears that Baltimore is lagging way behind Britain when it comes to harnessing the advances in DNA technology. But perhaps they've got a better balance than we have. We have about five million people on our database while the state of Maryland has just 50,000. Put in context that means that while 12 per cent of the UK's population is on the DNA database, only 1 per cent of Maryland's is. In this country a DNA sample is collected from everyone arrested, no matter whether they are charged or not. People held for a simple motoring offence have their DNA taken and stored. In Maryland only people charged with sexual or violent crimes are put on the database. Yesterday it was reported that a UK lawyer lost her job after a "routine security check" revealed her DNA was held on the national database – over a false allegation made against her. Most agree that convicted criminals should be on the database. But maybe Baltimore is right to use this technology with caution.

Our police should reflect our communities

Baltimore is a city in which 64 per cent of inhabitants are black. And, spending time with the police department there, I was impressed at how the force mirrors the community it serves. The proportion of black officers there is about 45 per cent. Compare that figure with the fact that London is a city where 30 per cent of the population are from an ethnic minority, yet just 8 per cent of Metropolitan Police officers are. The Met recognised that black-on-black crime was a problem and set up Operation Trident to combat murders in the black community. Yet, spending a day with them, Justin Fenton noted that only one detective in a team of 25 was black. Surely a unit attempting to build relations with black communities should have more black officers. Baltimore may have a lot of problems, but it is streets ahead of the UK in terms of having a police force which more accurately represents its population.

Juries should be screened

This week the Baltimore Mayor, Sheila Dixon, went on trial for theft. The jury pool was made up of 999 people, of which 12 were chosen after a lengthy screening process in which both parties have the right of veto. That is what the American justice system demands. In Britain jury pools are made up of 30 people and the defence or the prosecution have no say over the final 12 who are chosen. In my experience the only person I have ever seen taken off a jury was a man who was unable to read the oath. We pride ourselves on our legal system – but with the increasing complexity and length of trials these days – we perhaps need to ask ourselves whether it is fit for purpose. The legal system in Baltimore has obvious flaws but perhaps in this area we have something to learn.

But things could be worse

Every day, due to the nature of my job, I write about the worst things in our society. But the very fact that shootings and other violent crime still shock is testament to the fact they are relatively rare. Perhaps the most important thing we can learn from Baltimore is that things here could be much worse. They have a huge homicide rate – one in every 2,700 people is murdered there. And a terrible poverty problem – more than 20 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line. Gun crime is so rife that non-fatal shootings barely register as events. In Britain we are rightly concerned about crime and worried when it goes up because, of course, everything is relative. But, compared to Baltimore, our problems are minuscule.

Justin Fenton in London

Should all police be armed?

Baltimore's toughest streets are indeed dangerous, and officers put their lives on the line every day and deserve adequate tools to protect themselves. But, after observing unarmed forces in the UK for a week, one has to wonder how London and Manchester forces avoid the deadly confrontations Baltimore police find themselves in about two dozen times a year. Fewer than 500 Metropolitan Police officers, out of a force of 35,000, carry weapons, and in the six-year span covering 2004 to 2009, London police fatally shot nine people. Baltimore police shot and killed 42 people during that same time span. Certainly, Baltimore has a bigger crime problem, but London is also 10 times the size. The Met Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson praised his department's training to help officers verbally defuse confrontations, something our police Commissioner has mocked. Patrol officers carry pepper spray and batons, and that's it. Do they not also confront mentally unstable, knife- or gun-wielding men, the most common reason why police shoot people in Baltimore?

Treat the drug problem

There seems to be a much bigger push in the UK to address the nexus between criminal behavior and drug addiction by screening suspects at the front-end. In London, arrestees are drug-tested and referred to a counselor right there in the local police station, and their follow-up visits to counseling and treatment can be required as a condition of bail. It could be difficult to translate such a program to the already overburdened police in Baltimore without outside funding, but such work zeroes in on those causing the problems and might be welcomed by officers who grumble at locking up non-violent junkies, because at least they'd be providing them a potentially valuable service, instead of a cell at Central Booking – with the likelihood that the charges will be dropped.

Get out of your cars

I frequently saw officers on foot or on bikes, and all patrol officers are paired up in their vehicles or riding in vans as a pack, ready to deploy. The group patrols are a luxury of resources that Baltimore can't afford, but the foot patrols are something Baltimore's Commissioner has made a top priority. It gets officers out of cars and connecting with people, as big a part of policing as locking up the bad guys. Inevitably, trudging around on foot slows their response time, but both departments seem to be in sync that the people-factor should be a top priority.

Embrace CCTV

London is one of the world's most monitored cities, and the UK as a whole lays claim to some 4.2 million surveillance cameras – one for every 14 people. Rob McAlister, the CCTV manager for the City of Westminster, told me that he predicts a backlash and that misuse of cameras will translate into a falling number of them, acknowledging that some areas set them up indiscriminately and they were not effective. This is, of course, as American cities work to beef up their camera networks. Baltimore's system is patterned after Westminster, with our previous mayor Martin O'Malley and his staff consulting heavily with McAlister. But Baltimore still struggled to integrate their operations with police and make the best use of the cameras. One of Westminster's key achievements is that the cameras are seen as a city management tool, not just for police. Baltimore would be wise to continue consultation with those UK cities that have been there and done that.

Trust the public to help

On a per capita basis, the Met has far fewer homicides and serious crimes to investigate, and to that end it can throw far more resources at the problem. Baltimore detectives, who face a daunting caseload, also hit the streets and go door-to-door to investigate crimes, and there's a tipline set up for information that might solve a case. But I wonder if Baltimore police have taken into account the role that the public can play in solving crime. They are the only agency whose link on the local Metro Crime Stoppers webpage doesn't take web surfers to a local "Most Wanted" list, and a citywide robbery website set up and maintained by the detectives to disseminate information has been taken down. Fearful witnesses and distrust of police remain major problems here, and the media can't air every appeal. But Baltimore police could greater utilize their new social-networking push on Facebook and Twitter not only to inform the public, but help generate tips. More visible appeals within neighborhoods for information could cause a shift in the way the public views the police department's dedication to solving crimes.