Woods under fire for crime rate increase

January 07, 1993|By David Simon | David Simon,Staff Writer Staff writers Michael A. Fletcher and Michael James contributed to this article.

Frustrated by growing lawlessness and "the near total silence emanating from the leadership of our city," Baltimore City Councilman Lawrence A. Bell yesterday called for Police Commissioner Edward V. Woods' resignation if Baltimore's crime rate does not decrease over the next six months.

Mr. Bell, D-4th, who chairs the council's subcommittee on public safety, was joined by Councilman Martin O'Malley, D-3rd; Rodney Orange, the newly elected head of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP; and City Council President Mary Pat Clarke.

Last year, Baltimore recorded 335 murders -- its highest toll ever. Mr. Bell's comments marked the first time the commissioner has been publicly criticized by a city official.

"In talking with numerous police officers on the street, it's clear to me that there is a lack of confidence in the department's leadership," said Mr. Bell, citing a growing morale problem in the 2,900-officer department. "I believe that I have the support of the rank-and-file in this."

The councilman also cited Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke for "failing to ** respond in a meaningful way to the crisis," echoing criticism that Mr. Schmoke and Mr. Woods heard at community meetings last summer, after a toddler was slain on East Biddle Street.

"There ought to be a timetable for real progress in reducing the quantity of these violent crimes," the councilman declared. "And if after six months that has not occurred, the existing leadership ought to step aside for new leadership."

In a second news conference, the commissioner condemned Mr. Bell's remarks as "vicious," said he could not say when Baltimore's murder epidemic would abate and noted that he had no intention of quitting.

"There's no timetable. These problems didn't come overnight," Mr. Woods said, adding that he regarded the councilman's comments as an attack on rank-and-file officers who are risking their lives. Mr. Woods made reference to Officer Ira Weiner, who in September was shot and killed, and other officers wounded in the line of duty.

"This is an insult to those officers," the commissioner said.

When a television reporter noted that Mr. Bell took pains to praise street-level officers and had criticized only the top leadership, Commissioner Woods said only that "leadership begins with the sergeants and lieutenants."

Mr. Bell's comments drew an unusually sharp response from the mayor.

Mr. Schmoke said Mr. Bell was "woefully misinformed," noting that late last year, the councilman opposed a proposed increase in the city piggyback tax that would have been used to fund additional officers.

"This is really a classic example of why people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones," said Mr. Schmoke.

Told of the mayor's comment, Mr. Bell said, "That's a very cowardly response. He didn't propose the tax increase until late in the year. The crime rate was already out of control. He is passing the buck."

During Mr. Bell's news conference, the councilman said he was particularly frustrated by the pace of the department's five-year plan to implement a citywide community-oriented policing plan, as well as the response to drug wholesalers and street-level traffickers.

Mr. Bell noted that more than a year has passed on the department's five-year community policing plan and officials are only now preparing to provide additional officers to one pilot precinct, the Eastern District. Other districts and investigative units still will contend with staffing shortages.

Mr. Bell also said the mayor's proposed tax increase received little support because city residents have no faith that the Police Department would have used the additional resources effectively.

In addition to suggesting that Mr. Woods be held to a six-month judgment, Mr. Bell urged more state police help for the city, the reassignment of police officers to foot patrol duty in the city's designated drug-free zones, as well as the restoration of the Special Tactical Operations Patrol (STOP) squad, which is responsible for drug enforcement in the city's high-rises.

During Mr. Woods' news conference, he said Mr. Bell was ignorant of the department's activities, noting that a 12-member STOP squad was effectively countering drug activity. The commissioner also cited the violent crimes task force created in August to target repeat offenders.

But sources close to both units say that as of last week, the STOP squad was at half strength, while an internal dispute between the patrol and operations bureaus has left the violent crimes task force in disarray, with several key investigators transferred from the unit.

Questioned by a reporter, Mr. Woods acknowledged he didn't know the STOP squad's current complement. He attributed conflicts in the task force to "personality disputes."

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