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In Baltimore, No One Left to Press the Police

Bealefeld didn't mention that not one of the 23 threats against officers came in response to any use of lethal force. Nor did he acknowledge that 23 threats against a 3,000-officer force in a year is an entirely routine number; that the number of such threats hasn't grown over the past several years, according to sources within the department.

And union officials were comfortable raising the 2001 case without being forced to acknowledge that the officer in that instance most probably would have been killed had no newspaper ever printed his name; he had testified in open court against the relatives of those who later encountered him at the bar and killed him. So the case has scant relevance to the change in policy.

The commissioner was allowed to stand on half-truths. Why? Because the Baltimore Sun's cadre of police reporters -- the crime beat used to carry four and five different bylines -- has been thinned to the point where no one was checking Bealefeld's statements or those of his surrogates.

On Feb. 17, when a 29-year-old officer responded to a domestic dispute in East Baltimore, ended up fighting for her gun and ultimately shot an unarmed 61-year-old man named Joseph Alfonso Forrest, the Sun reported the incident, during which Forrest died, as a brief item. It did not name the officer, Traci McKissick, or a police sergeant who later arrived at the scene to aid her and who also shot the man.

It didn't identify the pair the next day, either, because the Sun ran no full story on the shooting, as if officers battling for their weapons and unarmed 61-year-old citizens dying by police gunfire are no longer the grist of city journalism. At which point, one old police reporter lost his mind and began making calls.

No, the police spokesman would not identify the officers, and for more than 24 hours he would provide no information on whether either one of them had ever been involved in similar incidents. And that's the rub, of course. Without a name, there's no way for anyone to evaluate an officer's performance independently, to gauge his or her effectiveness and competence, to know whether he or she has shot one person or 10.

It turns out that McKissick -- who is described as physically diminutive -- had had her gun taken from her once before. In 2005, police sources said, she was in the passenger seat of a suspect's car as the suspect, who had not been properly secured, began driving away from the scene. McKissick pulled her gun, the suspect grabbed for it and a shot was fired into the rear seat. Eventually, the suspect got the weapon and threw it out of the car; it was never recovered. Charges were dropped on the suspect, according to his defense attorney, Warren Brown, after Brown alleged in court that McKissick's supervisors had rewritten reports, tailoring and sanitizing her performance.

And so on Feb. 17, the same officer may have again drawn her weapon only to find herself again at risk of losing the gun. The shooting may be good and legally justified, and perhaps McKissick has sufficient training and is a capable street officer. But in the new world of Baltimore, where officers who take life are no longer named or subject to public scrutiny, who can know?

In this instance, the Sun caught up on the story somewhat; I called the editor and vented everything I'd learned about the earlier incident. But had it relied on the unilateral utterances of Baltimore's police officials, the Sun would have been told that McKissick had been involved "in one earlier shooting. She was dragged behind a car by a suspect and she fired one shot, which did not strike anyone. The shooting was ruled justified."

That's the sanitized take that Guglielmi, the police spokesman, offered on the 2005 incident. When I asked him for the date of that event, with paperwork in front of him, he missed it by exactly six months. An honest mistake? Or did he just want to prevent a reporter from looking up public documents at the courthouse? (Attempts to reach McKissick, who remains on administrative leave, were unsuccessful.)

Half-truths, obfuscations and apparent deceit -- these are the wages of a world in which newspapers, their staffs eviscerated, no longer battle at the frontiers of public information. And in a city where officials routinely plead with citizens to trust the police, where witnesses have for years been vulnerable to retaliatory violence, we now have a once-proud department's officers hiding behind anonymity that is not only arguably illegal under existing public information laws, but hypocritical as well.

There is a lot of talk nowadays about what will replace the dinosaur that is the daily newspaper. So-called citizen journalists and bloggers and media pundits have lined up to tell us that newspapers are dying but that the news business will endure, that this moment is less tragic than it is transformational.

Well, sorry, but I didn't trip over any blogger trying to find out McKissick's identity and performance history. Nor were any citizen journalists at the City Council hearing in January when police officials inflated the nature and severity of the threats against officers. And there wasn't anyone working sources in the police department to counterbalance all of the spin or omission.

I didn't trip over a herd of hungry Sun reporters either, but that's the point. In an American city, a police officer with the authority to take human life can now do so in the shadows, while his higher-ups can claim that this is necessary not to avoid public accountability, but to mitigate against a nonexistent wave of threats. And the last remaining daily newspaper in town no longer has the manpower, the expertise or the institutional memory to challenge any of it.

At one point last week, after the department spokesman denied me the face sheet of the shooting report, I tried doing what I used to do: I went to the Southeastern District and demanded the copy on file there.

When the desk officer refused to give it to me, I tried calling the chief judge of the District Court. But Sweeney's replacement no longer handles such business. It's been a while since any reporter asked, apparently. So I tried to explain the Maryland statutes to the shift commander, but so long had it been since a reporter had demanded a public document that he stared at me as if I were an emissary from some lost and utterly alien world.

Which is, sadly enough, exactly true.

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