As police leaders defend delayed raid, officer unions say it shows misplaced priorities and politicians call for clearing warrants

Baltimore city and county police leaders this week defended the decision to wait five days to serve a no-knock search warrant on an armed robbery suspect who police said then committed a homicide before his arrest.

But union leaders for the rank-and-file officers of those agencies say the slaying of James Blue, the husband of a Baltimore police lieutenant, is an example of commanders focusing too much on reducing overtime at a time when the number of officers is dwindling and violent crime is high.

Several politicians called the incident an unfortunate example of the large backlog of warrants.

“Unfortunately, in this instance, there was no information presented or inferred that exigent circumstances existed, which again meant that it would not have risen to a level that would require us to call people in,” Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison wrote in a letter to members of the department Thursday.

After Baltimore County police connected 18-year-old Sahiou Kargbo, a Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School student, to an armed robbery at a Parkville Wendy’s on Jan. 6, they obtained a no-knock search warrant for Kargbo’s Northeast Baltimore home from a judge on Jan. 21. The raid was delayed as first the Baltimore County robbery unit and then Baltimore SWAT had leave days.

Baltimore Police asked to put off the raid until Jan. 26 partly because it didn’t meet the department’s criteria for calling in SWAT on overtime.

On Jan. 25, Blue, a veteran Amtrak conductor, was fatally shot outside a rowhouse he was renovating on Walker Avenue in Northeast Baltimore. Early in the morning after the killing, police searched Kargbo’s home and found the gun they said was used to kill Blue. Kargbo has since been charged in Blue’s death. An attorney representing him could not be reached for comment.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott has not responded to multiple requests for comment about the delay made over several days.

Scott met with Gov. Larry Hogan earlier this month to discuss violent crime in Baltimore. In a Feb. 4 letter to Hogan, Scott sought additional state funding for several initiatives to curb crime, including funding for the department’s Warrant Apprehension Task Force.

Mike Ricci, a Hogan spokesman, said Friday that the meeting was the first time the governor’s office was first made aware of overtime issues.

“The governor announced last month we’ve stepped up our surveillance efforts to make sure more warrants are prioritized, but ultimately only BPD can make these arrests,” he said in an email.

Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican, represents several county communities that border the city, including Parkville, where a Wendy’s employee was robbed at gunpoint Jan. 6.

“We need expedite search warrants whenever possible,” he said in an interview Friday.

The Kargbo case, he said, also is an example of a concern he hears from constituents about the deployment of officers.

“There is an overall consensus that we are not streamlining and deploying police officers as we should,” Marks said.

The Baltimore County Police Department, like the Baltimore City force, has growing numbers of vacancies as law enforcement agencies across the country grapple with hiring officers.

“This incident was tragic and unfortunate,” Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. said on Friday.

He said the county will “continue to closely coordinate public safety efforts with our partners in Baltimore City on programs like the Warrant Apprehension and Regional Auto Theft task forces. We remain committed to continue identifying opportunities to strengthen our collaboration to promote safety throughout our entire region.”

Baltimore City Councilman Mark Conway, whose district includes the Idlewood neighborhood off Loch Raven Boulevard where Blue was killed, called the incident “a terrible tragedy for Mr. Blue’s family and loved ones, and for Baltimore.”

Conway chairs the council’s Public Safety and Government Operations Committee, which holds regular oversight hearings of the police department.

“Police are forced to make difficult decisions every day. The committee regularly discusses overtime issues at our oversight hearings, and I anticipate we will continue to do so,” he said.

State Sen. Cory V. McCray said agencies across the state struggle to serve more than 200,000 active warrants.

“The agencies don’t always have the resources,” he said. “Everybody talks about the number of open and active warrants.”

The Democratic senator who represents parts of East and Northeast Baltimore introduced legislation this month that would provide $2 million in grants to law enforcement agencies to coordinate and reduce the number of outstanding warrants. McCray said the legislation aims to “help get those violent offenders off the street and that next level down.”

Union leaders from Baltimore County and the city said the agencies are struggling with the reduced number of officers, while commanders work to reduce overtime costs, making crime reduction less of a priority.

“Detectives are able to respond in on weekends, on evenings, in the middle of the night,” said Dave Folderauer, president for the Baltimore County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 4. “They took an oath. They will do whatever it takes to get felons off the street in spite of personnel shortages and low morale issues.”

Baltimore County Police spokeswoman Joy Stewart said in an email this week that the two days after the warrant was signed by a judge — Jan. 22 and 23 — county robbery officers were on scheduled leave, and then city SWAT officers were scheduled off the day after. She said the city postponed the date of the raid another day, until Jan. 26.

Leaders of the Baltimore Police union said such a serious matter as a no-knock warrant, which allows officers to enter a dwelling without announcing themselves first, should be treated as a top priority. The union blamed the department’s emphasis on overtime reduction for the delay for the warrant service.

“The fact that Mr. Blue’s death might have been prevented but for scheduling issues and payment of overtime makes the policy makers at the top of the Baltimore Police Department responsible,” the Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3 said in a statement.

“The Commissioner is aware that the BPD is some 600 officers short and climbing substantially on his watch, yet he denies overtime,” the city union said.

Harrison, in his statement, which was sent to rank-and-file officers, acknowledged that the questions being asked about the warrant response are “fair.”

“We would not have ordinarily changed schedules to call people in to execute a search warrant,” he said.

Harrison said city and county police initially agreed to serve the warrant on Jan. 25, “however, it was determined there needed to be more planning between the parties before executing the search warrant.”

At the city police’s request, he said, the raid was delayed another day “to ensure the safety of the members of the public, the suspect and the officers executing the warrant.”

He also addressed questions about why a prior arrest warrant for a gun discharging filed against Kargbo on Dec. 28 was not served earlier.

“The three charges listed were all misdemeanor offenses and the detectives prioritized their efforts on serving warrants for incidents such as homicide and nonfatal shootings,” Harrison said.

In follow-up responses to The Baltimore Sun, Baltimore Police said its Warrant Apprehension Task Force cleared 1,766 warrants, including 986 felony and 780 misdemeanor warrants, last year. The unit includes 33 Baltimore Police officers, as well as officers from other agencies, including 18 Baltimore County police employees.

The task force uses the SWAT team on “search and seizure or high-risk warrants to ensure the proper safety protocols are in place to protect the general public and our officers when these activities occur,” the department said.

Last year, the SWAT team executed 126 search warrants and high-risk raids.

“The work that is performed by our dedicated WATF and SWAT team members is a critical part of our overall enforcement strategy to hold violent offenders accountable,” Harrison said in a separate statement.

“[We] continue to ensure that our resources are being used effectively and constitutionally to protect the residents of Baltimore,” he said.

Baltimore Sun reporters Darcy Costello and Pamela Wood contributed to this article.