City's Shift to Community Policing

February 29, 1992

In the 1960s, when Donald Pomerleau set out to reform the Baltimore City Police Department, he had to overhaul an agency that was outmoded, ineffective and corrupt. Being an ex-marine, the late Mr. Pomerleau modeled his department after a military organization. Today, seven ranks separate a beat officer from the commissioner.

A Silver Spring consulting firm says "serious consideration should be given to softening the centralized militaristic form of management." Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Commissioner Edward V. Woods seem to agree. As a result, they have initiated the first major reorganization of the police department in nearly three decades.

Their slogan is "community policing," a philosophical concept that is the buzz word of the day among U.S. law-enforcement agencies. Instead of being merely crime-fighters, officers are to become neighborhood problem-solvers. A departmental working group has started to implement the consultants' recommendations. A complete shift to community policing is expected to take five years.

Under the plan, the borders of the city's nine districts will be redrawn to respect neighborhood lines. Simultaneously, district commanders are to be given more leeway in running their stations according to their areas' specific needs.

The increasingly jammed 911 emergency system will be revamped to direct more police attention to serious and life-threatening situations. Investigative operations will be restructured.

The goal is to end the Band-Aid approach to law-enforcement problems and attack the root causes. For example, instead of sending patrol cars night after night to a "bar that is operating illegally near the corner, we will go to the zoning board and have the bar shut down," Mr. Schmoke explained.

All this is very promising. But successfully putting the community policing philosophy into operation will demand extraordinary management skills from the police department. It also will require cooperation and understanding from other city government agencies.

For example, the problem at Gold Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, the scene of a recent fatal shooting, is not only drugs and prostitution but the lack of adequate street lighting to discourage criminal activity. Whether the city's financial crunch will permit such elemental crime-fighting steps as providing better street lights at this and numerous other problem corners is an open question. Yet better illumination is one of the most cost-effective ways to fight lawlessness.

To help implement community policing, profiles are being prepared on various city neighborhoods. This presents a superb opportunity for the police department to sell the new philosophy to Baltimore residents and their community associations. Their cooperation will ultimately make or break this innovative approach.

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