In police front lines, sense of duty falters


It got so bad that Lt. Leander "Bunny" Nevin, a 37-year 'D veteran of the Baltimore force, felt compelled to say something at his next shift change. He strode into the district roll call, carrying forms authorizing officers to work secondary jobs.

He gave one to every patrolman on the shift.

"Now," he recalls telling his troops, "I want you to fill these forms out. And where it asks you for the name of your secondary employer, I want you to write, 'Baltimore City Police Department.' "

There was laughter, of course, but the lieutenant wasn't finished: "I'm serious, you should fill these out," he told them. "Because it's obvious to me from the way you guys are behaving that this can't be your real job. You're just out there moonlighting as cops, aren't you?"

And on that one shift, in that one district, a couple dozen city officers got the message. For a while, they worked their posts and cleared their corners and made some good arrests. For a while, the lieutenant remembers, the crime rate on his shift began to decline.

"I say you've got to call it like it is," says Lieutenant Nevin, who currently serves as the police union president. "A lot of these guys don't want to work."

Don't want to work? A union local president suggesting that his membership doesn't want to do the job? Isn't it the job of a union leader to defend his rank and file?

"Let me ask you something," Lieutenant Nevin asks. "Could you defend them?"

If a police agency's morale can be measured by the willingness of its men and women to do the job, then the Baltimore Police Department has cause for concern. For, while there are a great many officers willing to do the hard work of policing the city, there are many, too, who lack commitment.

In every police district and in many headquarters units as well, sergeants and lieutenants -- the department's street-level supervisors -- complain of lapsing discipline and declining standards among their troops. Fewer and fewer of those wearing the uniform, they believe, are ready to do the job the way it should be done.

Those supervisors talk of officers unable to write proper police reports; of officers unwilling to make arrests because a court summons would interfere with a secondary job; of officers too frightened to get out of their one-man cars and clear the corners of their posts.

"Police work used to be a calling," says one veteran detective. "Now it's just a job."

The causes, according to many in the agency:

* Poor hiring and recruitment during the 1980s, when a booming economy, declining standards and affirmative action efforts combined to undercut the quality of trainees entering the police academy.

* A growing inability by the department to compete with salaries and opportunities offered by suburban police departments and federal law enforcement agencies.

* An over-reliance on secondary employment to meet the financial needs of city officers. As the pay scale for Baltimore police has become less competitive, department officials have been obliged to allow more and more moonlighting.

* Increasing instances of corruption and malfeasance, fostered in part by an ineffective disciplinary process. An overburdened internal investigations division is unable to probe the growing numbers of allegations in a timely manner, while disciplinary hearings often take more than a year, according to department sources.

In particular, former Police Commissioner Edward V. Woods, who retired in November amid criticism, and his deputies are blamed for failing to take any serious stand -- either publicly or within the agency -- about increasing incidents of corruption.

"There was a feeling that if you didn't talk about something, or didn't act on it, then it might not exist," says one commander. "I think that attitude may soon be changing."

Soon after Mr. Woods departed, Deputy Commissioner Melvin McQuay promised action. "If anyone has any information about corrupt acts by officers, they can call me directly," he said in an interview. "This agency cannot and will not tolerate such acts if we are to maintain the confidence of the community."

Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier, speaking at his City Council confirmation hearing last week, was equally emphatic. "My first order to my deputies is that the internal investigations division will now report directly to my office."

Mr. Frazier added that he ordered subordinates to expand the internal investigations unit and "staff it with the best that we have."

'More and more dead wood'

If policing an American city amid the worst crime wave in its modern history requires all an officer's energies, then Baltimore is a city in need. For most of the 2,960 officers in the city department, moonlighting is the standard.

Department officials say they keep no data on the number of those working secondary jobs, but shift commanders throughout the department say that between 80 percent and 90 percent of their troops are moonlighting. Worse still, the amount of secondary work permitted officers is at an all-time high -- a result of recent contract concessions allowing police to work as much as 32 hours a week at another job.

"If you have a guy working a full-time job somewhere else, I can tell you what he's doing on midnight shift. He's sleeping," says Lieutenant Nevin. "And if he isn't sleeping, he sure as hell isn't arresting anyone because he can't afford to go to court in the mornings. He's got to be at his other job."

And yet the department has accommodated moonlighting, not only by allowing more hours, but by establishing "permanent midnight" shifts in some districts, letting officers work overnight and be free during daylight hours.

Similarly, many officers assigned to permanent day-shift duties have been given a chance to work elsewhere at night. Narcotics detectives, for example, routinely work 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. shifts, though much drug activity takes place after dark.

"Secondary employment should be a major concern in this department," says Maj. Ronald Daniels, who heads the personnel division. "Anyone who is working two full-time jobs can't be giving everything to either of them."

At the same time, Major Daniels and other commanders say it's hardly reasonable to blame the officers. They note that after several spare contracts, the department's pay scale isn't competitive. For example, a Baltimore officer with 10 years' experience makes about $34,000. He'd make about $37,300 in Howard County; $41,500 in Prince George's County; and $44,500 in Washington.

"You got to work secondary to keep up with inflation and the bills and all," says Officer James T. Shenk, a firearms instructor who works about 26 hours every week for Johns Hopkins Hospital and the National Guard. "With two kids and no pay raises, I don't have a choice, and neither do most other officers."

Police officials blame City Hall. "Secondary employment has been the hidden cost of all these years in which pay raises haven't been available," says one commander.

One Eastern District supervisor sees the effect every day. "There are still some good cops who want to do the work," he adds ruefully, "but every year, it seems like there's more and more dead wood."

The same lack of commitment is evident in the department's problems with paid medical leave -- a problem it has tried to counter. The agency's most recent self-evaluation confirms as much:

"The department has a major sick-leave problem," says a 1992 consultant's report, "with the average officer using about 16 days of leave per year." Departmental statistics show a disturbing correlation between an officer's experience and the amount of sick days he takes. The policy, among the most liberal in the nation, allows for unlimited leave.

In both 1991 and 1992, those officers with between 10 and 14 years on the force were those taking the most sick leave. Says Major Daniels, the personnel director: "What's unsettling is that this is the group that should be doing your best police work. They've been around long enough to get experience but not long enough to burn out."

In 1992, more than 8 percent of the department's police officers used more than a month of paid sick leave, department statistics show. The problem was particularly pronounced among the agency's 300 female officers; excluding those on maternity leave, 40 of that number -- almost 13.5 percent -- used at least 30 days of medical leave.

Likewise, the number of officers limited to light duty due to physical disabilities has soared. In 1980 the number of officers assigned to limited duty was 22; five years later, the number was 18; by 1989, 133 men and women were on light duty. Currently, the number is 110.

Recent contract changes and an effort by department officials to target some of the more egregious cases of malingering briefly produced modest declines in light-duty assignments and sick leave in 1991 and 1992.

By last year, however, medical leave was on the rise again. Department officials believe that officers used less medical leave in 1991 and 1992 only because they had been awarded extra vacation days.

For any shift lieutenant trying to fill patrol cars, such problems are profound: On an average day in 1992, for example, 6 percent of the department's 2,367 police officers or agents were out on medical leave or working a limited duty shift.

"This department can't afford that," says Maj. Steven Crumrine, commander of the department's fiscal division. "We're under strength as it is."

'We were under pressure'

Many department commanders say the decline in the work ethic in the department stems from the 1980s. It was at the end of the decade that the Vietnam-era generation of officers began to near retirement age.

The department's last reform-minded commissioner, Donald D. Pomerleau, lured veterans to policing by crediting them with their years of military service. "These people were seasoned by Vietnam and were accustomed to the discipline of a paramilitary organization," says former Col. Richard A. Lanham, now state corrections commissioner.

By contrast, a different kind of cadet was arriving at the police academy in the last decade. "We took in people who by rights should never have been allowed to become police," says one source familiar with agency recruitment. "They weren't signing up to enforce the law. They were signing up for $35,000 a year."

For the first time, the department began to have consistent problems with drug use among applicants, and routine drug testing was implemented. Complaints by street-level supervisors that some new recruits hadn't mastered basic procedures or learned to write a legible police report became common.

It didn't help that any criticism of the department's recruitment effort was muted by the controversial backdrop of race. "We were under pressure to increase the percentage of minorities in the ranks," says one high-ranking police official. "And that pressure was felt in the personnel division, where our standards were put to the test."

Not that there was an inherent problem in recruiting more black officers; after all, some of the best of the Vietnam-era officers were black veterans. But amid the economic boom years of the 1980s, a department with a less-than-competitive pay scale couldn't dramatically increase its minority representation without lowering standards.

"We couldn't get the best black prospects," says one official, "because we couldn't realistically compete with the opportunities and benefits offered by federal law enforcement agencies or the suburban counties."

Commanders and veteran officers say recruiting standards dropped precipitously. In fact, some investigators assigned to screen applicants in the mid-1980s began making copies of files to protect themselves. "They'd recommend against applicants who would be hired anyway," says one commander. "After a while, they began keeping their paperwork so they wouldn't be blamed when some of these new officers landed in a jackpot."

Only in the last two years has the personnel office recovered, largely through the efforts of Major Daniels, the personnel chief, who is credited by both his fellow commanders and veteran officers with restoring order to the recruitment process and assigning sufficient numbers of investigators to carefully review


"We're getting some good classes," he says, noting that the availability of former military personnel, now jobless because of reductions in U.S. forces, has stocked the pond. "But training them takes time."

'Our process is a joke'

Saddled with a growing number of questionable officers, many in the department say the paramilitary discipline so essential to the department's professionalism has broken down in some parts of the agency.

On many work shifts, efforts to enforce proper standards of conduct or demand a better quality of police work are given poor support by the headquarters hierarchy. Almost to a man, the department's sergeants and lieutenants complain of inaction and indifference amid mounting concerns about corruption and incompetence.

"You charge someone for a flagrant violation -- something that Pomerleau would have fired the guy for, no question," says one Northeastern District sergeant, "and a few months later, the guy comes back to you without any punishment."

Nor were officers removed from front-line police work when concerns arose. In the Western District, officers being probed for stealing from drug suspects and misusing department informant money continued doing drug sweeps.

In the Southern, an officer bounced from another district after shooting at his own radio car, pretending he was under fire, was returned to patrol duty.

In a third case, an officer suspected by Baltimore County police in a drug robbery and rape, was allowed to remain in a radio car. County sources say that officer remains a suspect.

Staffing for internal investigations -- the unit charged with policing the agency against corruption, brutality and incompetence -- has fallen 25 percent over two decades. Last year, about a dozen detectives were responsible for probing more than 1,000 incidents and complaints -- nearly one case every two working days for each investigator.

There is little time for prolonged surveillance or covert investigation, and when such efforts are undertaken, they are often poorly performed, say those familiar with the cases. "With one or two exceptions, we don't have our best people in IID," says one veteran narcotics detective. "Some of those guys couldn't catch a cold."

Even when an internal probe of an officer is successfully completed, more delays are inevitable. The department's legal affairs office, the unit responsible for bringing disciplinary charges against officers to a review board, is currently coping with a backlog of more than 70 pending cases, according to departmental sources.

"At a rate of one case a week," says a source in the legal affairs unit, "it's taking about 14 months for any given officer to go before a trial board. That's just ridiculous. I know that there are supervisors out there who think the department isn't helping them maintain discipline, and I think they're absolutely right. Our process is a joke."

Some in the department blame top commanders for allowing the police union lawyers to dictate the one-case-a-week rate of prosecution.

And until last year, says one major, the department leadership "agreed to suspend trial boards entirely for three months a year while contract negotiations were going on. That backed everything up for months."

Late last year, after hearing about the problem from a reporter, Deputy Commissioner McQuay told the command staff that more than a year's pending disciplinary cases would be expedited. He ordered subordinates to avoid any postponements in the hearings. Five more officers were also transferred into IID.

'There's so much cash'

Despite those efforts, the backlog of trial boards has yet to be reduced. Some blame Rebecca Tabb, the department's legal affairs director.

A relative of Patricia Schmoke, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's wife, Ms. Tabb was named to the post by City Solicitor Neal Janey, who had earlier fired Millard Rubenstein, the department's longtime legal director. Critics note that Mr. Rubenstein handled trial boards himself while Ms. Tabb leaves that work to subordinates.

Her assistants defend her performance, saying Ms. Tabb is involved in legal projects for Mr. Janey and has rightly delegated the trial board case work. They blame the police union and ranking commanders for the backlog of cases. Ms. Tabb late last year received a raise and a promotion -- as well as promises of another assistant to speed the process.

Ms. Tabb declined to comment. Mr. Schmoke noted that Ms. Tabb was only a distant cousin to his wife, saying he had no role in her hiring or assignment. He added that Mr. Frazier, the new commissioner, has a free hand to deal with problems in the disciplinary process.

"He has a definite plan for that," Mr. Schmoke said.

But officers and street-level supervisors say the absence of any clear internal sanctions has already cost the department. While none of those interviewed suggest that the city department suffers the kind of systemic police corruption seen in New York, Philadelphia or Miami, most say individual instances of corruption and malfeasance are on the rise.

In the past 18 months alone, multiple allegations of theft have rocked both the Eastern and Western districts, and officers in those precincts say that stealing money from drug suspects, while by no means a universal vice, has become more common.

"With drugs the way they are, there's so much cash around," says one Central District patrolman. "It's hard for guys to see all this money out on the street and stay conscientious."

Says one Eastern District veteran: "I know of at least eight guys who steal."

Agrees a Southern officer: "There's four that I've personally seen take money."

In every district, officers say that such problems had been quietly growing for years without any sustained institutional response, either from the department hierarchy or City Hall. To many veterans in the department -- some of whom remember the bad days of organized corruption in the 1960s -- the silence seems inexplicable.

"We're not yet at the point we were before Pomerleau came and cleaned house," says one commander, referring to the commissioner who last reformed the department. "But if we don't start dealing with the problem, we're going to get there."

Much is expected from the new commissioner. And judging from his first few days in Baltimore, much may be coming. Throughout the agency last week, stories were circulating about a field trip that Thomas Frazier and a subordinate took one Saturday in an unmarked car. Several officers in the Eastern and Southwestern districts say they were pleased to find themselves in the company of the new boss. Mr. Frazier introduced himself, asked questions, invited a comment or two.

But the surprise visit may have consequences. In the Eastern, sources say, Mr. Frazier saw cars away from their posts and officers ignoring crowded drug corners. In the Southwestern, patrolmen listening on their radios heard a command unit -- obviously a top official -- calling for a car at the thriving drug corner of West North Avenue and Rosedale Street. When no car arrived, they heard a second call, asking for a supervisor -- and an explanation.

"I guess he got a look at what's going on out there," says one Eastern patrolman. "I don't think it was very pretty."

About this series

This series is the result of mor than 100 interviews with officers, midlevel supervisors and commanders during the past year, as well as with former city police agencies.

Many Baltimore officers and commanders interviewed asked not be identified, fearing retaliation by supervisors. Many former city police officials would only speak on the same condition, concerned that their comments would offend former colleagues in the department leadership.

Former Police Commissioner Edward V. Woods declined to be interviewed, as did three of his top commanders: Deputy Ckommissioner for Patrol Eugene Tanzymore, Col. George Christian, commander of the Criminal Investigation Division, and Deputy Commissioner for Operations Melvin McQuay. Mr. McQuay did, however, make a comment about his desire to root out corruption in the department.

* Tomorrow: Within the ranks, there have long been questions about the capabilities of those leading the department. And almost all of the critics blame Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke for allowing a leadership vacuum.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad