As Baltimore police officers gathered for a cocktail party to bid farewell to outgoing Police Commissioner Edward V. Woods, the air buzzed with news of his possible successor last night.
"It's all anybody is talking about today," said Clint Coleman, spokesman for Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. "There's a lot of excitement."
Announcing four finalists for the $93,000-a-year job earlier in the day, Mr. Schmoke praised their "wide variety of talents" and said that "all of them have been good police officers."
But the decision will not be an easy one for the mayor. Indeed, the special committee he appointed to sort through 24 applicants for the job has presented him with four very different men.
All are champions of community policing, which puts officers on foot patrol so that they can get a better feel for neighborhood problems, a philosophy Baltimore police have been slow to embrace. But the candidates differ greatly in personal style and management approach.
And two of them come to the city carrying heavy baggage. The other two enjoy sweeping support in the cities where they currently work, but only one has extensive experience policing a big city beleaguered by persistent violent crime.
He is Joe Leake, a 54-year-old father of four and a 32-year veteran of the New York Police Department who worked his way up from patrolman to second in command of Staten Island and the Bronx before being selected last September to head the sprawling 3,000-member Manhattan North district.
One of only three black chiefs in the department, Chief Leake arrived in the uppermost echelon of one of the world's biggest police agencies more than three decades after he quit his job as a barber to attend the police academy, from which he graduated first in his class in 1962.
"You're not talking about an affirmative action wonder here," said Officer Tom Velotti, vice president of the Policemen's Benevolent Association union. "This is a guy who was a very active police officer when he was on the street, an excellent homicide detective and a very smart cop who worked his butt off to get where he is.
"He's done a lot to bring us back in touch with the citizens. And he won't tolerate corruption of any kind -- he's death on that -- and he's a tough disciplinarian, which has not made him the most popular guy with cops who like to slip off for a nap."
Chief Leake has refused repeated requests for interviews, but he told Newsday in October, "Some people see the police department as an esoteric and secretive organization. My job has been to go out and communicate humanness, and I believe that's every police officer's job."
To that end, he has served on a community development board, directed a crackdown on noise pollution and stepped in to mediate turf disputes between merchants and street vendors -- small efforts to make life more livable in his area.
He graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor's degree in behavioral science and has received advanced management training at Columbia University. He is described in interviews as soft-spoken, low-key and very private.
In terms of personal style, Tom Frazier could not be much more different. The 48-year-old deputy chief of the San Jose Police Department is a self-described "down-the-pipe" manager who studied under visionary former chief Joseph McNamara, a friend of Mr. Schmoke.
Chief Frazier, too, enjoys firm support in his California city of 800,000 people, where the homicide rate is 85 percent lower than Baltimore's.
A 27-year veteran of the department, the father of three joined it after a tour in Vietnam in the Army. From patrolman, he was quickly selected to work on undercover drug cases before rising into criminal investigations, internal affairs and research. He is now operations boss of the 1,170-member department.
He has also been involved in modernizing the department -- overseeing a new multimillion-dollar computerized 911 emergency center, designing a minority recruitment and promotions plan, and helping to draw up the community policing plan.
"He's the model of the modern police administrator -- by far our most competent deputy chief and one of the most well-known cops on this coast," said Sgt. Michael Fehr, president of the San Jose police union. "And he's a cop's cop. He came up under Joe McNamara, studied under him and understood him. And the training doesn't get any better than that.
Chief Frazier is also the department's point man when conflict flares in the community -- whether a protest by gay activists, an influx of Asian drug gangs or concerns about police services in the black community -- Sergeant Fehr said.
"He's as tough as they come," Sergeant Fehr said. "But he always keeps an open mind. He always listens. And when he makes a decision, things happen."
Chief Frazier said, "We've struggled through a lot of the problems other departments are only now coming to grips with. I was fortunate to be part of that. I learned early on how to get from point A to point B in a hurry."
Chief Frazier has a master's degree in criminal justice administration.
Whether Mr. Schmoke chooses one of the other two candidates for the job may depend on whether he feels his police department -- which has experienced a rash of corruption allegations, questionable shootings and charges of racial favoritism in hiring and promotions -- needs a dose of strong medicine.
If he does, Mack Vines, 55, may be the man for the job.
Described in one published account as "the Red Adair of law enforcement" -- a reference to the Texas wildcatter famed for his ability to extinguish raging oil well fires -- Mr. Vines has parachuted into one troubled police department after another over the past decade. And he has gotten badly burned.
Currently the head of the police academy in St. Petersburg, Fla., where he was once chief, he has also been chief in Dallas and Charlotte, N.C., in recent years. In both cases, he was hired by black city managers intent on whipping their departments into shape.
"He won't be coming back to Charlotte any time soon, not if I have anything to say about it" said Officer Don Penix, president of the police union there. "The guy was a disaster.
"He's a hellacious administrator -- very smart, very politically savvy. But he was completely detached from the officers in the trenches. He never got his hands dirty. And he went around promoting young black officers and women who hadn't even been here three years."
That criticism is echoed by many union heads in every city where Mr. Vines has worked. In Charlotte, where he was chief from 1980 to 1985, he force-fed community policing, affirmative action and rigorous ethics to the troops, Officer Penix said, triggering a wave of resignations and retirements.
Mr. Vines ultimately resigned "just as the rank and file was getting ready to march on City Council," Officer Penix said.
After a brief stint at the U.S. Justice Department and as head of a small Florida police department, Mr. Vines took over the 2,800-member Dallas Police Department in 1988.
"The community immediately embraced him," said Calvin Howard of the mostly black Texas Peace Officers Association. "And the old guard white officers were against him from the minute he walked through the door.
"The department was at war with the community, and we were having a horrendous number of police shootings. Mack Vines changed all that single-handed. But when you start cleaning house in Dallas, you may as well start packing your bags."
Mr. Vines promoted five minority officers to his command staff, setting off shock waves in a department dominated by white males. He then instituted a community policing plan that forced white officers to walk beats in minority neighborhoods.
Then he fired a white policeman for shooting an unarmed Hispanic suspect. At a grand jury inquest into the shooting, a supervisor testified that Mr. Vines had pressured him to change his testimony to help indict the officer.
Mr. Vines was then indicted himself, on a perjury charge. He was cleared, but not before the City Council had begun proceedings to fire him.
In an effort to save his job, he paid a video crew to come into his home to record his wife and him pleading with the City Council to spare his professional life.
"Why is this happening?" Mr. Vines asked in the tape. "We don't deserve to be in this posture. We've done nothing wrong. We're good people."
He was fired anyway, then sued the city for more than $1 million.
His career epitaph, one neighborhood activist said at the time, was that he had paid the price for "finally bringing the [Dallas] Police Department into the 20th century."
Mr. Vines has a master's degree in public administration and extensive experience as a law enforcement lobbyist and federal grants expert.
Like Mr. Vines, Jerry Alton Oliver, 46, is credited with bringing community policing and affirmative action to a police department, in his case the troubled 220-officer Pasadena, Calif., force. And he, too has faced serious criticism inside the department and praise from neighborhood leaders.
Chief Oliver, who grew up in a public housing project in Phoenix, spent 20 years in the Arizona city's police department. He spent three years as a beat officer before rising to police academy training officer, shift lieutenant, assistant to the chief and head of the investigative division. He retired in 1988 and was appointed chief in Pasadena two years later.
It was the first time an outsider had been named to the Pasadena post in more than 50 years. And he immediately drew fire from the Pasadena Police Officers Association when he undertook a series of changes.
When the union president, Detective Dennis Diaz, criticized the chief for proposing to appoint a civilian to head administrative services, he found himself demoted to the research division, a move that an arbitrator later found to be an act of "discrimination, interference and intimidation" designed to silence Mr. Diaz.
Chief Oliver was then rocked by a messy divorce from his wife of 18 months, who accused him of abusing her.
In an episode that received wide coverage in the Pasadena Star-News, Chief Oliver's wife dialed 911 for help during an alleged beating. City officials offered to investigate if she would file a formal complaint, then let the matter drop when she failed to come forward, the newspaper reported.
Despite Chief Oliver's problems, community activists hungry for change continue to support him as a much-needed reformer. He is also credited for taking to the streets after the Rodney King verdict in Los Angeles and preventing the rioting from spreading to Pasadena.
"Before Jerry came, if you had a complaint about a particular police officer, it would have been "so what," a Pasadena resident told the Los Angeles Times. "Now, they'll sit and talk out a situation with you."
Chief Oliver has a master's degree in public administration and has received advanced police management training at Harvard University.