Crime Lab Gives City Big Punch in Fight Against Bad Guys

Left: Baltimore City Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer and Baltimore Police Department chief of forensics Steven O’Dell. (Photo by Justin Silberman)

Chani Loeb traces her interest in blood splatter, tire tracks, fingerprints and ballistics to the nights when she first started watching the popular TV drama “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” She was instantly hooked, becoming enamored with the clues of solving mysteries and crimes through forensic science.

“I like the idea of solving mysteries and crimes through science. I don’t know if I’ll actually go into forensic science since I don’t have a strong background in science or law,” said Loeb, who works in the advertising and marketing field.

A spike in crime across Baltimore has had a ripple effect throughout the city, and the Jewish community has been proactive in mitigating its share.

On Monday, Loeb, 28, of Northwest Baltimore, joined about 100 community members at Cross Country Elementary Middle School to learn how Baltimore Police Department chief of forensics Steven O’Dell and his unit solve crime.

The event came on the heels of the announcement that Baltimore had the second- most recorded homicides through the first four months of the year in its history at 108. Much of the crime in Northwest Baltimore recently has come in the form of carjackings and home burglaries, said Baltimore City Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer (D-District 5), who hosted the event.

“The only way we’re going to catch these criminals is through the crime lab,” said Schleifer, who has made public safety a top focus. “So we need to make sure no case goes untreated.”

O’Dell said the lab receives roughly 15,000 requests per year to investigate homicides, burglaries and other crimes, taking on about 500 cases. His unit uses state-of-the-art equipment in checking for fingerprints and bullet casings, among other pieces of evidence that might appear invisible to the naked eye.

Support from police Commissioner Kevin Davis, Schleifer and former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, O’Dell said, has helped expand the lab’s staff from 96 to 122 during the last four years. With more personnel, O’Dell noted that it has allowed the lab to create the evidence-based systems to support due process.

“They like us,” O’Dell said of Davis and Schleifer. “A lot of times in law enforcement, commissioners, police chiefs and agencies, they look at science like it’s geeky. They embrace it, and that’s a big deal, especially with what’s going on in the city right now.”

Efficiency is a word O’Dell and his staff use often to describe the evolution of his lab.

He said the hit rate, the percentage of evidence analyzed that identifies perpetrators, varies nationwide. His crime lab’s hit rate is 26 percent.

“It’s really, really good,” O’Dell said. “In fact, that’s actually very impressive.”

While O’Dell said he has noticed an increased demand for the lab’s services, he noted that has coincided with how fast analysts have been able to help solve crimes.

“It’s empowering. It’s innovative. It’s reforming,” O’Dell said. “The bigger this becomes in law enforcement, the more effective law enforcement becomes.”

He said scenarios such as home burglaries and carjackings almost always require a visit from crime lab technicians, who “compete with one another to see how many fingerprint samples they can get.”

“If one of our crime lab technicians sends us a print, they are taking it,” O’Dell said. “It means something to them, both from the context of the work they are doing and how we measure samples. We just sometimes get so overflowed with cases that it can be tough for us to respond to them on the same night, let alone show up then.”

Asher Wildman, 36, of Northwest Baltimore, said he understands the burden placed on the crime lab when it comes to solving cases in a timely manner.

As a member of the local Jewish community patrol group Shomrim, Wildman said it might be beneficial for people in similar organizations to become educated in forensics to lessen the load of the main crime lab.

“We have so many different groups and people in this community helping to fight crime,” Wildman said. “So if we all are invested together and use all the resources that are available to us, I think it would absolutely help us to better understand how to deal with a crime scene.”

Before Schleifer announced his run for City Council, he urged then-Mayor Rawlings- Blake in December 2015 to increase spending on forensic resources. The result led to the addition of eight technicians for a total of 36 and two more lab supervisors for a total of five as part of a $347,000 package.

“It’s a no-brainer to have resources allocated to what works,” Schleifer said. “The crime lab is the most efficient way to resolve crime, which makes the cost to treat a scene negligible to what they are getting.”

Nathan Willner, 52, president of Cheswolde Neighborhood Association, said he feels the increased resources the city has provided to the lab have paid off.

“For the dollar, there is no better use of taxpayer funds than a crime lab, because the money they spend is huge compared to the other departments of law enforcement,” Willner said. “This is a community that is really interested in crime prevention and solving crimes.”

Pearl Englander, 58, also of Northwest Baltimore, said it was helpful to learn what to do if she was a victim of a crime.

“I feel it is important that the community build a strong relationship with the police and acknowledge what they do,” Englander said. “It’s also important that we be enlightened to what they do, so that if a crime was committed against me or anyone I know, we would know how to handle it.”

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