Circumstances have provided the City Council's Executive Nominations Committee an agenda for its hearing today on Thomas C. Frazier's appointment as police commissioner. It is bad enough he is about to take charge of public safety in a city riddled with violence and drugs. But it's also a city in which an armed corrections officer is gunned down outside his home in a sedate neighborhood and where other citizens are grabbed off the streets so thugs can pillage their bank accounts at automatic teller machines. What does Mr. Frazier propose to do about it?
His answers won't be easy, and if they sound pat it will be evidence enough they are wrong. Baltimore has a serious crime problem, both in fact and in public perception (which are not always the same thing). Mr. Frazier knew that when he accepted Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's offer, but he may only now be discovering the true dimensions of the mess he has inherited. How candid he is in describing his challenge and how blunt he is in outlining his plans to deal with it will give Baltimoreans their first clues as to how effective a leader he will be.
Some parts of the city resemble war zones, with their chronic gunfire and turf battles between rival drug peddlers. The murder rate in Baltimore approaches one a day, some of them innocent bystanders and a few of them children. The narcotics trade infests many neighborhoods, stimulating not just fantasies but vicious crimes to pay for them. Justified or not, residents of solid middle-class neighborhoods so fear crime near their homes that they pay for private patrols.
The murder of Lt. Jerry Watkins of the city jail force near his home in Ednor Gardens, just north of Memorial Stadium, is as shocking as it is senseless. But even that quiet neighborhood of well-tended homes has been rocked recently by a series of street assaults. Now the police are confronted with a rash of abductions, also in neighborhoods generally perceived to be safe.
Cold-blooded as it may seem, compared to the bloodshed in many of the city's poorest neighborhoods, this is the sort of crime that makes a police commander's task even more difficult. Pressure builds to increase patrols in the newly afflicted neighborhoods, especially when the criminals strike within a few blocks of influential residents. At the same time crime is rampant elsewhere and police are being called on to provide the sort of community services Mr. Frazier and other progressive police commanders deem important.
Mr. Frazier has a lot of conflicting demands to reconcile. How well he does it will determine his professional future, as well as that of the mayor who appointed him.