Every fire begins with a tiny spark, but when a Baltimore City policeman ignored a motorist waving beside his disabled car on the Jones Falls Expressway in 1964, who could have foreseen that it would ignite a blaze so fierce that it would consume the police commissioner and force the Police Department to rebuild from ground up?
Now, newly appointed Baltimore Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier is beginning a shake-up that was brought about
because it had become obvious even to City Hall that the department is in disarray and unable to stem the flood of dope-fueled violent crime that -- at least in public perception -- threatens to engulf the city and overflow into the suburbs.
On that day 30 years ago, however, nothing was as obvious as today's problems, but it turned out that an equally serious situation was seething out of public view.
Paul A. Banker, then city editor of The Sun, was driving behind the patrol car on the JFX. He recalled: "I remember what hit me in the head. I saw that officer pass a broken-down motorist who was waving for help. I had the feeling that we were having too many people in police cars, that they should be removed from the cars."
In the Calvert Street newsroom, Mr. Banker related the incident to reporter Richard H. Levine and asked him to take a look at Police Department operations.
For seven months, Mr. Levine burrowed, quietly and alone, deep into the 3,100-member Police Department, emerging in December 1964 with a series of articles that indicted departmental management and policies. They led eventually to the appointment of Donald D. Pomerleau in 1966 as the first outsider to head the Baltimore department -- and to a complete departmental overhaul.
Mr. Levine wrote:
"The Baltimore Police Department is manned, equipped and financed heavily enough for modern warfare on crime, yet it is waging a primitive kind of guerrilla action marked by inefficient administrative procedures, haphazard planning and lax discipline.
"Compared with other major cities, the manpower strength of the Baltimore force (3,100) is extremely favorable and the city pays more a person for police services than any other city with the exceptions of New York, Washington and Chicago.
"Yet standards for performance, promotions and job applicants are clearly below what should be expected."
Said Mr. Banker, who retired as Sun managing editor: "We had been conscious of a declining police department, but we had not known the extent of it until Dick got into it. But we were not talking about the crime situation; it's very different today. This story today [the series published last week, written by Sun reporter David Simon about the Police Department] really pointed it out; they just can't do it anymore."
Among the many deficiencies exposed by the Levine articles was that police were suppressing or downgrading crime reports, dumping them into the so-called "File 13" to create the appearance of a lower crime rate.
Within days, Gov. J. Millard Tawes appointed Attorney General Thomas B. Finan to head a special committee to investigate the newspaper's allegations. Bernard J. Schmidt, the commissioner, countered with a lengthy report, compiled by his inspectors and senior officers, that challenged but could not refute The Sun's disclosures.
Governor Tawes forced Mr. Schmidt to retire -- nearly 1 1/2 years early -- and ordered Mr. Finan to begin a nationwide search for a successor. Mr. Schmidt left Feb. 3, 1966, and Maj. Gen. George M. Gelston, commander of the Maryland National Guard, was appointed interim police commissioner to try to stanch the worst wounds as allegations of departmental mismanagement continued to mount.
Meanwhile, the Finan Commission found more than enough to justify asking the International Association of Chiefs of Police to make a full study of the Police Department. The probe lasted eight months and resulted in a 600-page report that excoriated the top brass and recommended a top-to-bottom reorganization.
In particular, in his four years as police commissioner, Mr. Schmidt never brought formal charges against an officer because of a citizen's complaint of brutality or violation of civil rights, the consultants said. The report also said there was corruption, with police officers on the take, and also that, despite popular opinion, "Baltimore is saddled with vice and organized crime of major proportions."
The IACP said that Baltimore needed "inspired, imaginative and indefatigable leadership in the Police Department and cooperation and support from the community and the state."
It assessed the department's then-top management this way: "Questionable competency . . . sidesteps responsibilities . . . fails to take strong stands, fails to plan for future needs and fails to recognize the reality of poor procedures."
The personnel performance evaluation system was "perverted" and the promotion system was "antiquated and restrictive."
In sending the IACP report to Governor Tawes, the Finan Commission said, in part:
"Even a cursory reading of the report will show that it calls for drastic changes in nearly every phase of police operation, beginning with the reorganization of the basic structure and chain of command. The truth is that the department is in grave need of modernization."
Unlike now, when Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is being criticized for not acting to combat departmental deterioration, the Finan Commission confined its criticism to the departmental management and nothing in the IACP report reflected on the city administration.
Baltimore City had surrendered authority to appoint its police commissioner after the Civil War, although the city paid for police operations. The IACP recommended that the commissionership remain a gubernatorial appointment, but in 1967, then-Gov. Spiro T. Agnew initiated moves to restore departmental control to the city, and commissioners have been appointed by the mayor for more than 20 years.
When Governor Tawes appointed Mr. Schmidt in 1961, he became the second man to rise through the ranks from patrolman to commissioner. There have been several since.
Mr. Pomerleau, a former Marine, took over in September 1966, after having participated in the investigation of the department as an IACP consultant. He was the unanimous choice of the screening panel, which interviewed several candidates for the job.
Within two years, Commissioner Pomerleau had improved training and pay, increased the number of patrol cars and given beat officers walkie-talkie radios and Chemical Mace to carry.
When Mr. Pomerleau retired in 1981, the system reverted to internal promotion and then-Mayor, now Governor, William Donald Schaefer appointed Col. Frank J. Battaglia, the night commander, as the new commissioner.
Mr. Battaglia, 80, last week warned the public not to expect instant miracles from Mr. Frazier. "He will need at least five years, until he gets some good people in the leadership," said Mr. Battaglia, who retired in 1984 after 45 years in the department.
Recalling the chaotic re-organization period in the early Pomerleau years, Mr. Battaglia said: "We had to do it from 1966 on, but from 1970 on we had the best department in the country. People came from all over the world to be trained by us.
"Commissioner Frazier sounds like an intelligent man. He should study the situation and recruit quality people like Pomerleau did. A lot of good men have left the department, and he can't replace them overnight," Mr. Battaglia said.
Also, the retired commissioner said, Commissioner Frazier must be given adequate budgets and other resources to improve departmental standards, and it is vital that the state's attorney, the judiciary, the Department of Correction and the community join the effort if the Police Department's ability and reputation are to be restored.
E9 Robert Erlandson is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.