Police chief search rouses high hopes Insiders, outsiders see need for strong leader

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If the prayers of the fed-up and hopeful are answered, he will be a field marshal, philosopher and father-confessor -- a steely leader with a heart of gold who inspires awe when he walks into a room.

Someone with nerve enough to take the oath of office as the head of a once-celebrated Baltimore Police Department battered by charges of corruption, racial favoritism and incompetence.

Someone bold enough to stanch a violent crime rate that is driving out taxpayers and threatening to strangle Baltimore's reputation as a renaissance city.

Someone big enough to work for Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke -- and to tell him no if necessary.

As a secretive committee appointed by the mayor begins to sift through the resumes of 84 applicants for the police commissioner's job, friends of the department from downtown Baltimore to California ainted a portrait last week of the person best suited for the $91,000-per-year post.

And they offered advice on how to get him or her.

"We shouldn't expect a miracle here," said George N. Buntin Jr., executive director of the Baltimore NAACP. "But this is clearly a crucial decision for the mayor and the city. Whoever sits in that police commissioner's seat has to have the capacity to deal with the problems that seem to have overwhelmed us so far."

It is a seat left open by the surprise resignation of Commissioner Edward V. Woods in August -- just as the murder rate was rising toward last year's record 335 homicides.

Gone are the calls for a "black commissioner" or a "white commissioner" in a city where a majority of residents are black and seven out of 10 police officers are white. Gone are the strident appeals from police representatives for a savior from within their own ranks.

"We're at the point where we really don't care if the person is black or white or a man or a woman," says Detective Henry A. Martin, president of the Vanguard Justice Society that speaks for the department's 600 black officers.

That sentiment would have been heresy in the not too distant past, Detective Martin concedes.

"Obviously," he says, "there was a time when we felt that a majority- black city should have a black commissioner. But we're past that now. Give us somebody, anybody, who is going to get the job done. Inside or outside. We don't care where they're from."

Lt. Leander S. Nevin is president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3 and a self-described "old-guard Irish Catholic police" with 37 years in the department. He says: "There's four guys upstairs in the department who have my vote and two of them are black.

"Just give me somebody who isn't going to take any crap. My crap. The mayor's crap. Or anybody else's crap. I want a leader."

In his own way, Mr. Schmoke says he wants the same thing.

"To say the person would have unfettered independence to do as they see fit would be misleading the public and the candidates for the job," Mr. Schmoke said. "But I do expect there to be give-and-take and occasional disagreements.

"That is perhaps something that has been lacking in prior chiefs. I don't know. That's why we are doing a nationwide search. We want to know what the thinking is out there."

What the thinking is precisely -- in the minds of his own officers and some noted police observers -- is that Mayor Schmoke has not allowed his two prior commissioners the freedom to slay the dragons loose inside the department's walls.

Mayoral meddling?

His admirers say his intervention has been well-meaning. His harshest critics say he is meddling in the department's affairs.

That criticism will be the hardest part of the equation for the mayor to solve, because it catches him completely by surprise.

"I have not heard that," he said in an interview last week, his normally measured tone cracking momentarily. "I just haven't heard that. I don't know where that would be coming from."

Lieutenant Nevin of the FOP does not readily give the benefit of the doubt to the mayor, but he says he can see why the mayor is baffled.

"We have a lot of young police who have no respect for the commissioner's office or the command structure," he said. "They think the commissioner is not in charge and the mayor can't get to them.

"That's the perception in the department right now," Lieutenant Nevin continued. "Whether you can trace it to any one thing he did is another question."

Hayes C. Larkins, who has taught criminal justice at the New Community College of Baltimore for 25 years, echoed several ranking officers in attributing the rift between the mayor and the department to a hot night in July two years ago.

A team of narcotics officers, armed with a flawed search warrant, crashed through the door of a relative of the mayor's wife after an informant said he had bought crack cocaine there. The raid came up empty. The mayor, in the thick of a 1991 election campaign, criticized the three officers publicly.

The men were accused of lying to get the warrant -- only to be exonerated in court, then reassigned to menial jobs and charged with violating department rules. Then came word last summer that they were suing for $15 million, alleging that the mayor ordered their punishments.

The case has produced tremors ever since in an institution that does not easily forget slights, much less frontal assaults.

"The complaint has been that instead of letting the commissioner handle the problem the mayor just put his hands in there -- going as far as to criticize his own men in public," Dr. Larkins said.

The mayor pauses during an interview, mulling the point.

"The sloppy handling of search warrants was a policy issue that had to be addressed," he said. "But I can see how some people might object to how it was handled. I accept the criticism. I accept their concern as well-meant.

"Maybe the new commissioner would say 'Mayor, come to me when you have a police policy concern before you go public with it.' I would respect that. In fact, I would appreciate it."

Mr. Schmoke also allows that his policy suggestions to past commanders may have been taken as marching orders, producing disastrous unforeseen consequences.

A shallow well of talent

One was Mr. Schmoke's idea to recruit more officers from the city to make the department "reflect the community" -- an idea that was implemented by the police command.

No one noticed that slumping standards in city high schools, flight to the suburbs and drug violence had left the city with a shallow well of talent to draw from, said Dr. Larkins and two ranking officers.

"You cannot take somebody who lacks the essential social and academic skills necessary to a good police officer and make them neat, sweet and discreet in a 20-week academy class," Dr. Larkins said. "They've tightened up the rules lately, so we're seeing more good people coming through. But there's a frightening number of them out there with guns on their hips who are not fit for the job."

It's complex, practical problems such as these that candidates for the commissioner's job will be expected to solve -- problems that will take big ideas.

But when your boss is Kurt Schmoke, the ideas have to be really big because it is precisely on issues of law and order that he has done his heaviest thinking and carved out his highest national profile.

Five years ago, he began preaching about the need to decriminalize drugs and shift money away from law enforcement and into treatment and training. Now, he finds himself with a growing congregation when he opines from the bully pulpit of the Washington Post Oct. 3 that "clearly we can't prosecute our way out of crime."

The mayor promises that "I would not impose those views on the department, and I will stand by that commitment with the new commissioner."

Working with Mr. Schmoke

Ultimately, the question is this: Is there anybody bold enough to work for a social scientist with Mr. Schmoke's Yale and Harvard credentials -- to take the drastic measures necessary to save the 2,900-member department?

"That will depend on how candidates view the job," said Bruce Jensen, whose Bellevue, Wash., firm conducts searches for police chiefs and other city executives. "Are the problems there so severe that the job is seen as a career breaker, or is it seen as a manageable challenge that can enhance somebody's career?

"I would add that the pool of people with experience running a department that size is not all that big -- 25, tops, nationwide -- and you're going to have to offer a lot more than $90,000 to get them, especially if the problems are severe."

William M. Rathburn, who resigned as Dallas police chief this year to head security for the Atlanta Olympics, suggests protecting the new commissioner with a contract.

Baltimore's police commissioner serves a six-year term but can be removed by the mayor.

"The very best people in this business are seldom willing anymore to take on a tough job like that without a contract or some other assurance that they won't be subject to the whims of the mayor or whoever's in charge," said Mr. Rathburn, who came under fire in Dallas when he sacked 65 police officers for misconduct in a two-year housecleaning.

"Decisive action is what you need to make serious progress, and that's hard to do if you're always looking over your shoulder. These kind of problems also take a long time to solve, so you don't want your new hot-shot chief getting lured away by some other city. You want to bind him to a contract."

Mr. Schmoke says he's willing to accept whatever his committee recommends in salary and assurances when it gives him a final list of five candidates in the next few weeks.

No one outside a small circle of Mr. Schmoke's advisers knows what the eight committee members think. Contending that it must protect the applicants' privacy, the board is conducting all meetings in secret -- even though all it has done so far is listen to police and community groups sound off about everything from racial tensions within the department to crime in the streets.

"Everyone wants to see a strong leader and a creative thinker and a strong communicator who would come up with nontraditional approaches to problems," said committee chairman Hubert Williams in one typically opaque exchange. "They want somebody who has been a police officer himself."

Still, interviews with current and former police chiefs around the country confirm that Mr. Williams, the director of the nonprofit Police Foundation who has served on no fewer than five such search boards in recent years, has contacted some of the nation's best-known administrators about the job.

In that, some say, Baltimore should see cause for hope.

"If you're having problems, the general rule is that you should look for the best possible person you can find outside of the department," said Joseph McNamara, former chief of police in San Jose, Calif., a research fellow at the Hoover Institute of Stanford University and a "great admirer of your city and your mayor."

"With the name Baltimore, Md., it should not be hard to draw a strong pool of candidates if all other things are equal. It's a city and a police department with a long and venerable history in which any chief would be proud to serve.

"But he'll need to know he'll have the freedom and independence to do the job right, to get the job done."

POLICE CHIEF SALARIES NATIONALLY

CITY .. .. .. .. ..POPULATION .. .. .. .... .. ..SALARY

Baltimore .. .. .. ..730,000 .. .. .. ..$91,000 starting

Cleveland .. .. .. ..505,000 .. .. .. $69,000 to $77,000

Columbus .. .. .. ...633,000 .. .. ... .$88,000 starting

Dallas .. .. .. .. 1,000,000 .. .. .. ..$95,000 starting

Detroit .. .. .. ..1,200,000 .. .. ..$76,000 to $101,000

El Paso .. .. .. .. .515,000 .. .. ..,$60,000 to $93,000

Honolulu .. .. .. ...836,000 .. .. .. ..$76,000 starting

Houston .. .. .. ..1,600,000 .. .. .. ..$67,000 starting

Los Angeles .. .. .3,400,000 .. .. ..$160,000 top salary

Milwaukee .. .. .. ..628,000 .. .. ...$73,000 to $98,000

Phoenix .. .. .. .. .980,000 .. .. ..$70,000 to $110,000

San Antonio .. .. ...935,000 .. .. ...$60,000 to $90,000

San Diego .. .. ...1,100,000 .. .. ..$58,000 to $125,000

San Jose .. .. .. ...782,000 .. .. ..$97,000 to $118,000

Seattle .. .. .. .. .516,000 .. .. ..$86,000 to $100,000

Wash. D.C. .. .. .. .606,000 .. .. ...$86,000 to $90,000

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