Frazier draws mixed reviews; Chief: While critics and admirers of the departing police commissioner agree that his five-year tenure had a significant impact, they disagree over whether it was for good or ill.


A MONTH AFTER Thomas C. Frazier was sworn in as Baltimore's new police commissioner in early 1994, the outsider from California got an earful from residents fed up with escalating crime.

"The cops are scared of the drug dealers," Lisa Allen, a Park Heights resident, shouted during a community forum. "They control the streets, not you."

How could the city's front-line crime fighters not confront drug dealers, a bewildered Frazier asked out loud.

"Either you don't know how to," he would bluntly tell his troops, "you're afraid to, you don't care, or someone is corrupt."

Then he raided Greenmount Avenue. "We took the worst, most dangerous, most violent area of town and went in and, in fairly short order, cleaned it up, took it back and held it," he proudly proclaimed.

Five years later, crime is still a major issue in Baltimore. As Frazier, 54, wraps up his tenure and a new mayor prepares to take office, questions remain as to whether the city is a safe place to live and work.

Frazier maintains that he has turned the city's police force into a national model and pushed crime to a 10-year low.

However, ending violence was a pivotal issue in the recent mayoral primary campaign and propelled one of Frazier's strongest critics, Councilman Martin O'Malley, to a primary victory, as he called for a new get-tough policing strategy to produce the crime-rate drops seen in other big cities.

Crime did not fall fast enough in Baltimore for many critics, and in contrast to the murder rates in other towns across the country, Baltimore's homicide figures stayed stubbornly high. This year might be the first this decade to see fewer than 300 slayings in the city.

"We've become a city that might celebrate the fact that less than 300 people died, and we'll still be one of the deadliest cities in the country," said Officer Gary McLhinney, the president of the local Fraternal Order of Police.

Residents interviewed in West Baltimore had mixed reactions to Frazier's departure and the reported decline in crime.

"They've got more cops on the beat," said Joe A. Smit. "I don't hear about as many murders or robberies."

But Nikki D. Johnson said she notices "a lot of things around here that need to be changed. They need to get the people off the corner selling drugs and get them jobs. I don't go out at night. I got robbed once, so I'm still scared to walk by myself at night."

A new era of policing is about to begin. For good or bad, Frazier's five-year reign had a profound effect on policing and the city's psyche.

Perhaps not since Donald D. Pomerleau arrived in 1967 to reform a corrupt and brutal force had Baltimore seen a commissioner like Thomas Frazier, a soccer coach and father of three who once trucked in loads of dirt to bring beach-style volleyball to this gritty East Coast city 150 miles from the ocean.

He is loudly championed by some as a crime-fighting savior of the city -- and condemned in other quarters as the worst thing that could have happened to the Baltimore Police Department.

A top black police colonel has openly called him a racist. The black police chaplain said Frazier is so good that she hoped the new mayor would "wake up and see that this commissioner is doing so much to bring this city along."

Frazier wore his pressed uniform and his sidearm nearly everywhere -- whether it was to join an officer on patrol or to chat with the city's money set at swanky cocktail parties. He could talk as easily to residents of Park Heights as he could lobby for money at the White House.

Sometimes, he seemed more like a social worker than a police chief, able to issue thoughtful statements on the state of civic affairs. He was as comfortable under the glare of television lights as a seasoned politician.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke hired Frazier as a new breed of police executive, a progressive innovator who promised to bring fresh ideas to a crime-weary city with one of the oldest, and most traditional, departments in the country. He quickly made his mark:

n Years of arresting drug addicts generated impressive statistics but did little to solve the overall problem, he said, and so he ordered his officers to concentrate on guns and to ignore people who carried small amounts of drugs.

n He took over city recreation centers that were losing money and being used as havens by drug dealers, and he built a Police Athletic League that attracted hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations and is held up as a national model by the White House.

n Saying he wanted to hire officers "in the spirit of service, not adventure," he made Baltimore one of the first cities in the nation to institute the Police Corps, a unique program that pays college tuition for students who agree to become police officers for four years.

n He launched the nation's first 311 nonemergency number to alleviate an overburdened 911 system and to cut the number of frivolous calls to which officers had to respond.

n He treated his district commanders as mini-chiefs and pushed accountability to the lowest supervisory ranks, to make officers more accessible to the community and to ensure that they had a stake in reducing crime.

n He gave members of his force new uniforms, better equipment and computers in squad cars, encouraged officers to attend college and sent supervisors to leadership schools. Frazier said police union claims that morale was at an all-time low were self-serving rhetoric.

But if residents welcomed change, many inside the department didn't. He tossed out the fabled, hand-carved nightstick -- the espantoon -- and replaced it with a slender baton favored on the West Coast, ending the time-honored tradition of nightstick twirling.

His most controversial move was rotating officers to new jobs every three or four years. He gave two reasons: Break a union stronghold on the department, and open up elite units such as homicide to minority and women officers.

"On the West Coast, that's standard operating procedure," said Chuck Wexler, director of the Police Executive Research Forum, of which Frazier is president.

But, in Baltimore, it was met with disdain. Homicide detectives openly criticized the policy, and many seasoned investigators left, mocking Frazier at their retirement parties.

He also faced down calls for his ouster from the police union, which complained he never cultivated a loyal cadre of commanders to help guide him through his tenure and failed to set a cohesive crime-fighting plan. "Strategies changed depending on what the evening news had to say," McLhinney said.

Frazier came to Baltimore with high expectations -- a Sun series published during his confirmation hearings documents a police force in disarray and led by a predecessor unable to assure residents that the department could keep them safe.

"We in the command staff were very excited," said Joseph R. Bolesta, who retired recently after 32 years on the city force. "Here was a guy who had an opportunity to be absolutely a great police commissioner. He was a disappointment to me. He had the opportunity to do so many great things, and he really didn't come through."

Frazier's most public failing was that he never seemed to grasp the city's complex racial politics, at least to the satisfaction of African-American civic leaders.

Within months of Frazier's arrival, a black officer brought the commissioner a study that showed years of disparate treatment: Black officers were being fired in disproportionate numbers, compared with their white colleagues.

The problems were created by past commissioners, and Frazier didn't react until a parade of black officers showed up at a City Hall hearing chaired by O'Malley to complain about racism within the department.

As a result, Frazier replaced three white commanders and put blacks in charge of hiring, discipline and training. He revamped the disciplinary process to make it fairer and promoted more African-Americans to command positions than did any of his predecessors.

He triggered the biggest uproar of his tenure in 1997, when he suspended his top black deputy, Col. Ronald L. Daniel, for suggesting at a private meeting with other black officers that Frazier should be replaced if racism on the force couldn't be resolved.

The ensuing firestorm, during which Frazier barely hung onto his job, prompted protest marches by officers, fractured the command staff, as leaders chose sides, and exposed years of deep-seated racial tension in the department.

One result was that Frazier lost the trust of some of the people who should have constituted his inner circle. He relied on outside consultants, particularly William Mathis, an old California friend who routinely evaluated the department and recommended personnel changes.

Mathis was known as "Dr. Death" around the department, because his visits usually led to changes. He once referred to lieutenants as "slugs." One officer complained to the mayor that Mathis "reinforced the insensitivity that command shows on a daily basis to the rank-and-file."

Former Maj. Leonard Hamm said there "was an absolute war going on in the department" at times. "Maybe that's why he brought outsiders in. How could you possibly get advice in a situation like that?"

William J. Bratton, former New York and Boston police commissioner, said Frazier endured "a very hostile command staff who engaged in a revolution against him and continually undermined him. Baltimore is a city that has major problems. Tom achieved a lot in spite of the difficulties."

Peter Hermann covers the Baltimore police department for The Sun.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad