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Lackluster policing starts at the top

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Thomas C. Frazier sat stoically as Baltimore vented its wrath: City Council members criticizing the Police Department for inaction; neighborhood leaders pleading for immediate relief; a bereaved father seeking answers for the murder of his son.

"Somebody solve the problem," Kenneth Lee said plaintively. "I'm so despaired. I'm asking for your help."

And Thomas C. Frazier, the man chosen by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to lead the Baltimore Police Department to a better place, made a measured promise at last week's council hearing. "What my guarantee is," he said, "is that with the resources I have, you will get the best performance you can."

With him were his new subordinates -- some of them architects of the failed regime, desperate to avoid the taint; others, antagonists of former Commissioner Edward V. Woods, glad for the new day.They sat impassive as politicians and citizens savaged their agency's performance. They scarcely reacted as Mr. Frazier acknowledged failed strategies, low morale, poor discipline and concerns about corruption.

"Nobody looked very shocked," said one commander later. "You'd have thought they were talking about someone else's police department."

Yet to many in the council chamber two weeks ago, the verbal battering seemed directed at a man not in attendance. "Kurt Schmoke was and is the mayor," says one council member. "It's his Police Department."

A veteran prosecutor, Mr. Schmoke has nonetheless long seemed to many inside his police agency to be peculiarly passionless when it came to fighting crime. "In the past," said one commander last summer, "when we got near 200 felonies a day in the city, you'd have [former mayor and now Gov. William Donald] Schaefer demanding that something be done. Now we're routinely over 300 a day, and no one bats an eye."

While rising violence is a constant preoccupation among city residents, from the housing projects in the poorest neighborhoods to the well-tended enclaves of Roland Park and Guilford, the mayor's most visible priorities seem to be Baltimore's schools, or neighborhood revitalization, or better housing.

He has high ambitions and lofty goals -- to make Baltimore "The City That Reads," for example, or turn Sandtown-Winchester into a national model of urban renewal.

But Mr. Schmoke has been far more reticent in setting goals about dealing with crime.

In 1990, when Baltimore's homicide count topped 300 for the first time in two decades, he declared it intolerable. The numbers would go down the next year, the mayor pledged.

"I know I'm not going to condone it," he said of the murders, "and neither is the commissioner."

The next year, the numbers rose again, and they've been climbing ever since. Mr. Schmoke made no more such promises, and instead chose to address crime as a national problem that afflicts every American city.

The mayor's critics say he chose to tolerate the Police Department's deteriorating performance as well. Having reappointed Mr. Woods, the mayor seemed to accept lackluster results at a time when dramatic leadership was needed, they complain.

"It wasn't that Ed Woods wasn't sincere or that he was any worse than some of the other people we've had running the department," said one police commander.

"But when you're looking at this particular moment in time, the problems confronting the city require more than a caretaker. And that's the best that can be said about the last four years: We had a caretaker."

Though he continued to defend Mr. Woods for months after public criticism of the police administration began a year ago, Mr. Schmoke says now he had trouble communicating with and motivating his police commissioner, adding that he felt unable to remove Mr. Woods, who was serving a six-year term.

Councilman Lawrence A. Bell, D-4th, who a year ago called for Mr. Woods to resign if Baltimore's murder rate did not decline, finds the mayor's stance frustrating, but familiar. Mr. Schmoke also showed a reluctance to replace his housing commissioner, Robert W. Hearn, and first school superintendent, Richard C. Hunter, amid mounting evidence of problems in those agencies.

"The mayor may have shared the view that certain department heads weren't cutting the mustard," says Mr. Bell.

"But when they started to be criticized publicly, he seemed to react to that by sticking with strategies and personnel that weren't working. I think he now sees it differently."

"We need real leadership"

Mr. Schmoke may well be at a loss about how to respond to the city's crime wave -- in which felonies have increased by more than 37 percent since 1987. Asked by a reporter last week about the crime problem, the mayor spoke approvingly of Mr. Frazier and his plans.

The mayor said he expected action from the new commissioner -- assigning more officers to patrol duty and clearing some notorious open-air drug markets. If neighborhood groups organize community watches and work with the Police Department, he said, they'll see changes.

But asked what he might say to residents of a stable community such as Ednor Gardens, where a community watch has been long established and a string of 17 armed robberies and a homicide has terrorized residents, the mayor had few answers. There was "no magic wand" for the problem of crime, he said.

Many see such a statement as an accurate, honest assessment. Crime and drugs are profound sociological forces, debilitating to a great many American cities. And many, too, agree with Mr. Schmoke that national drug policies have only exacerbated the problems.

But many in the Police Department argue that Mr. Schmoke's emphasis on national policies and problems had become an excuse for inaction. By their reckoning, Mr. Schmoke's law enforcement agency could have pursued genuine goals. Instead, they say, the department was reactive, its strategic planning nonexistent.

"Basically, the mayor and Eddie Woods and everyone else were hoping people would just stop shooting each other," said Lt. Leander S. Nevin, the blunt-speaking president of the police union.

In fact, when Mr. Schmoke finally replaced Mr. Woods in August, the action did not begin as a mayoral imperative. "Let's say the stars came together," the mayor explained, noting that Mr. Woods began talking of retirement in the spring.

"I said to Commissioner Woods that his assessment of the department was different from that inside, his assessment was not shared by the majority of citizens," the mayor added. "I had a great deal of concern about what was going on internally, concerns about how officers were deployed."

Mr. Schmoke is now seeking to change his police agency through the appointment of Mr. Frazier, a San Jose, Calif., deputy chief approved by the council as commissioner on Monday. Mr. Frazier is the first commissioner from outside the Baltimore agency in more than a dozen years -- a circumstance that suggests a full mandate for change and reform.

Inside the agency, many are saying the time is right.

"There are some serious problems in this agency," says Maj. Ronald Daniels, a veteran commander who was himself a candidate for the commissioner's post. "We need real

leadership."

"More candor"

Amid the dramatic increase in Baltimore's crime rate, Mr. Woods and his deputies pursued a handful of initiatives, but the changes were more incremental than dramatic.

A community-oriented policing pilot project is under way in the Eastern District but shows little effect. With 80 slayings last year, it is Baltimore's most violent precinct.

Another initiative, the Violent Crimes Task Force, has been functioning for 18 months -- though that fledgling effort has been marred by dissension over the unit's mission. More detectives, too, were assigned to the homicide unit to work the rising number of murders.

But little else in the way of new strategies was attempted, say department insiders. "There wasn't any plan," says a high-ranking commander. "All we did was react to whatever was in the newspaper that morning or whatever was on the mayor's mind."

If the department wasn't providing much leadership, many police commanders say Mr. Schmoke wasn't demanding much either.

Instead of dealing with issues of policy or performance, commanders say, the mayor chose to get involved in other agency matters. They point to promotions, transfers and disciplinary action against some officers who roused his ire.

In one dramatic instance, Mr. Schmoke urged that a squad of officers be prosecuted for a technical flaw in a warrant after a relative's home was raided. The officers were ultimately exonerated by a city judge, but they have been removed from enforcement duties, leaving their careers in a kind of administrative limbo.

While Mr. Schmoke's actions in that case embittered many in the rank and file, some commanders, too, felt undermined by City Hall interference, says one police major.

"There are instances in which district commanders have been told directly by City Hall to respond to minor problems and issues," he says. "When you have your district commanders answering to both their police superiors and politicians, you've got a problem with chain of command."

For his part, Mr. Schmoke expresses surprise at the notion that his actions were seen as objectionable. "I've tried to take an interest in the overall policies and strategies of the Police Department," he says. "I think that's an appropriate role as mayor."

Many in the department are hoping that Mr. Frazier will insist on more independence from City Hall and defend the department in a way Mr. Woods never attempted.

The former commissioner and his deputies lost the support of many in the department for readily accepting dictates from City Hall regardless of the consequences to his agency. In retrospect, the mayor agrees with the criticism: "I'm looking forward to more candor from the new commissioner."

Candor might have allowed the department to escape a 1991 hiring freeze, which contributed to the department's understaffing. Mr. Schmoke says now that while the freeze involved all city agencies, the Police Department was most severely affected because officers could opt for opportunities elsewhere.

The hiring freeze "was a necessary response to the cuts we saw in state funding," the mayor says, adding that Mr. Woods gave him no warning of the consequences: "If I had been told that there would be an adverse affect on public safety, I might have responded differently."

"They're politicians"

Mr. Schmoke's hiring freeze may have reduced the ranks of officers, but seemingly nothing could stop the department's bureaucracy from growing.

During the Schaefer years, the agency's command staff -- captains and above -- increased by more than 20 percent even as hundreds of officer positions were cut. The trend continued and peaked in 1989 -- the middle of Mr. Schmoke's first term -- when 55 commanders were leading what was becoming the smallest department in decades.

Last year, a major earning $59,000 was supervising three sergeants and seven officers in the community relations section. The major was supervised by a $62,400-a-year full colonel, whose only other responsibility was the 39-officer youth section -- which had its own major, three lieutenants and 13 sergeants.

Since 1990, the Police Department has managed to drop three command positions. Forty-nine commanders now supervise a force of 2,911 others; two decades ago, the same department had 41 commanders leading a force of 3,378.

The force includes those with the rank of officer as well as sergeants and lieutenants. "Fewer Indians," says a veteran commander, "more chiefs."

Within the department, those chiefs are not universally admired. Four police commissioners in a dozen years have cluttered the hierarchy with cronies: "Every commissioner . . . promoted his own friends and favorites, some of whom aren't exactly the best people," says one commander.

And beyond political allegiances, race has long been an issue in department promotions. For many years, black officers were slighted by a predominantly white command structure. Now, after three successive black commissioners, white officers routinely complain that black candidates are elevated with questionable justification.

Mr. Woods was relatively careful to promote whites to higher rank -- notably Maj. Melvin McQuay to deputy commissioner -- but the belief in an anti-white bias is firmly set in many minds.

Mr. Woods' predecessor, the late Edward Tilghman, was less politic. A survivor of the indignities suffered by black officers during an earlier era, Mr. Tilghman was committed to making the hierarchy better represent a predominantly black Baltimore.

In 1992, just over 30 percent of Baltimore's police officers were black, up from 17.5 percent a decade earlier.

"There were a couple of particularly bad promotion lists in the late 1980s," says one black commander, "when some African-Americans were jumped two grades and no whites at all were promoted. That left some ill feeling that we're still dealing with."

But the agency's leadership problems go beyond race. Many veterans -- both black and white -- say that talent in the department is routinely overlooked. "It's not that they've promoted one race or the other," says one black shift commander. "It's that they never seem to pick the best people -- black or white. They're politicians. They pick people who aren't about police work."

"The problem is the officers on the street don't have respect for the people leading them. And when they don't respect and fear their commanders, they don't perform," says Lieutenant Nevin, the police union president.

Five essential tasks

If there is hope for the department, say many insiders, it is vested in Mr. Frazier, who last led an agency with 1,200 officers. The Baltimore department, though understrength, has more than twice that number.

Mr. Frazier has said he likens his task to "turning a big, old ship."

But turn it must. And many department insiders say that for the agency to regain its momentum, five essential things must occur:

* A housecleaning.

Free from any prior loyalties, Mr. Frazier is in a unique position to choose his trusted subordinates from the legions of deputies, colonels, majors and captains left in place by the last few regimes.

* Restoration of the department's internal disciplinary processes.

The legal affairs office must begin to prosecute neglectful, incompetent and brutal officers in a timely fashion. Meanwhile, the overworked internal investigations division must be strengthened and the quality of its casework improved.

* A serious evaluation of the department's community-oriented policing strategy.

The labor-intensive community-oriented model of policing may require more officers than the Baltimore department can muster without damaging other essential functions.

Given that other cities are reducing crime by targeting violent offenders and improving their investigations, Mr. Frazier's willingness to do the same -- perhaps at the expense of more visible police programs -- would be telling.

* A reduction in moonlighting, medical leave and light-duty assignments for officers.

Personnel and legal affairs officials have started to tackle some of worst cases involving malingering. But unless the city can come up with a substantive pay raise for police officers, the new commissioner may be hard pressed to ask his troops to scale back their moonlighting.

* Accountability for performance.

Perhaps the toughest assignment Mr. Frazier faces will be to make his subordinates -- and, by extension, their troops -- responsible for protecting the city on a post-by-post, district-by-district basis. Critics in the department contend that for too long, raw arrest statistics have been substituted for more relevant evidence of good police work.

"They've got to make it so that a cop who spends a week investigating an armed robbery and then locks someone up gets as much overtime, court time and respect as a cop who uses the same week to make a dozen cheap street rips," says one district sergeant. "The day they do that is the day they start fixing things."

"A lot of us are hoping"

Beyond the arrival of a new commissioner, is there any further cause for hope?

Certainly, say department officials, noting that recent academy classes, which were constituted after Mr. Schmoke lifted the hiring freeze, will improve the department's black representation while maintaining standards. Officials credit an economy that was sagging until recently, coupled with the reduction of U.S. military strength, for providing a strong crop of recruits.

"These are some of the best police candidates we've seen in years," says Major Daniels, who heads the personnel division. "We're extremely pleased."

But more than just new blood, many department veterans say that while morale is poor, there is still a core of strength in the department, officers who are frustrated and angry at the state of the agency but nonetheless willing to do police work.

"You have people in this department who very much want to do the job," says Maj. John Reintzell of the planning division. "Man for man, woman for woman, I think it's still one of the better departments in the country."

In the Baltimore department, too, there remains an institutional memory of what an urban policing agency can accomplish. Former Commissioner Donald D. Pomerleau -- who, according to the long-standing headquarters joke, brought the agency out of the Dark Ages and well into the 19th century -- was a cantankerous ex-Marine who had neither patience nor goodwill for those who challenged him. He tolerated little criticism and was willing to abuse his power.

The imprint of Mr. Pomerleau's 14-year reign has faded since his 1981 departure, but the outlines are still there. These remaining shards of his history may prove to be valuable to another reformer.

"Donald Pomerleau was a ruthless bastard, but he cared about the department because it was his department," says one sergeant with enough experience to remember. "At this point, a lot of us are hoping this new guy has some bastard in him, too."

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