From his double perspective, officer favors civilian police review board

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LEONARD HAMM, City College Class of 1967, now sits in an office in the basement of a building that once housed students at his alma mater's archrival: Polytechnic Institute.

In 1966 and 1967, Hamm played for a City basketball squad that won 40 straight games and is ranked as one of this town's best ever. Sitting in a chair in that office, he's older, heavier, grayer now. But he's the chief of police for Baltimore's public schools. It's a job he took after spending 22 years on the city's police force. And as a veteran policeman, Hamm has some strong opinions about legislators from the city proposing a civilian review board.

"It's a long time coming," Hamm said of a civilian review board. "The time is right to have it. I think it's necessary."

Often, police officers -- retired or active -- resist attempts to establish civilian review boards, figuring it allows civilians who know nothing about the dangerous nature of police work to butt into police affairs. But Hamm -- one of several blacks promoted when Commissioner Thomas Frazier took over leadership of the department -- doesn't budge from his position, and his reasons are sound.

"What I sense in this city and around the country is black people don't trust the police," Hamm continued. Whites may trust the police, but what Hamm called the "police culture" -- one that protects police misbehavior -- has to open up and change so that all people trust police.

"It's not only the excessive force," Hamm said of the problem. "It's a total lack of respect police have for our community."

The case of state Sen. Joan Carter Conway -- who claimed she was subjected to brusque and abusive treatment when she was arrested by a city officer recently -- is only one example. Hamm cited another: cops unnecessarily or arbitrarily parking and blocking streets in black neighborhoods. He noticed even more flagrant examples when he was growing up in Cherry Hill.

"Police 'fraternizing' with young ladies in the community -- that was a sign of disrespect," Hamm recalled, making it clear that "fraternizing" was a euphemism for cops taking young neighborhood girls into their cars and having sex with them. It was a frequent and abominable practice of the Baltimore police force of the 1950s and early 1960s.

Black Baltimoreans remember the Baltimore force of that era well, albeit perhaps not too fondly: a motley collection of overseers keeping occupants of the "plantation" in line. Brutality was frequent. And lest we forget, those police dogs that Birmingham, Ala., public safety director Eugene "Bull" Connor set on civil rights demonstrators in 1963 came from the Baltimore City Police Department, whose leaders were apparently only too eager to lend them to Connor.

"I had many, many role models on how not to be as a police officer growing up in Cherry Hill," Hamm said.

He also has seen or heard about many instances of excessive force.

"The one case that stands out in my mind: My own son had a police officer literally put a gun in his mouth." The boy was only 15 or 16 at the time, Hamm recalled of the incident in the early 1990s, and Hamm was a lieutenant in the Central District. The cowboy cop served -- or, in this case, mis-served -- in Hamm's district.

"I made sure that officer didn't do that again to my son or anyone else's," Hamm made clear without going into specifics.

"It's appropriate for an officer to pull his gun for safety," Hamm explained, "but not to put it in somebody's mouth, upside their head or in their face. That's not necessary."

Fortunately, Hamm had talked to his son repeatedly about what to do if the boy was stopped by the police. It is advice that Hamm says should be passed on to every young black man in the city, through mentoring and church programs.

"The message should be: The streets are the police officers' arena," Hamm advised. "Your arena if you're dealing with them is the courts. If you're stopped, you should take down the date, the time, the location, the conditions, the officers' names, badge numbers and what they did."

Armed with that information, complainants could then go before the proposed civilian review boards. Hamm feels most police officers can deal with that.

"The police officer who's doing a job the way it's designed to be done won't have a problem," Hamm believes. Abusive and brutal cops are the exception, not the norm. Hamm remembers when he was on the force he could tell -- just from the district a complaint of police abuse or brutality was made -- who the accused cop was.

"You have the same players every time," Hamm insisted. "In any city, in any precinct in this country, the same thing will apply. You can either tell exactly or with a certain degree of accuracy."

Baltimore police, Hamm noted, must "rebuild their credibility" with the black community. Ironically, the one cop whom Hamm credits with making "great strides" in building up that credibility is the one cop who's taking the most criticism from all sides: Commissioner Thomas Frazier.

Pub Date: 3/07/99

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