Baltimore Co. police: a follow-up report

WILEY A. HALL

July 13, 1993|By WILEY A. HALL

When the Baltimore County Police Department surveyed the racial attitudes of its personnel in 1987 and again in 1992, it found good news and bad news.

On the plus side, both surveys showed that the majority of the police force appeared to be racially tolerant. Moreover, the force seemed less prejudiced than the U.S. population, judging by some national polls. And the higher ranks appeared more tolerant than the lower, suggesting at the very least that the department promotes the right people.

Most importantly, the questionnaires -- though not a perfect index -- showed a dramatic improvement in attitudes between 1987 and 1992.

In 1987, over a third of the department's patrolmen were found to be intolerant, as were 19 percent of the sergeants, 26 percent of the corporals, and 23 percent of the lieutenants. Yet by 1992, intolerance had declined considerably throughout the force, to 14 percent of patrolmen, 9 percent of the corporals, and 7 percent of the sergeants and lieutenants.

But those same departmental surveys could be viewed from a negative perspective: They showed that as recently as last year, a significant segment of the department remained racially intolerant -- of both colleagues and civilians.

"When we say that there is zero tolerance toward racial and sexual harassment within this department, we mean zero tolerance," says Cornelius Behan, the Baltimore County chief of police. "So, I am not satisfied that there is a problem with the attitudes of just seven to nine percent of my supervisors."

In a recent column, I reported that many black police officers in Baltimore County complain of harassment and discrimination by white colleagues. Blacks say they are more likely than whites to be charged with departmental infractions, to be found guilty, and to receive harsh punishment. I interviewed 26 of the 118 black officers on the force -- and all 26 raised the same charges.

Some white officers later complained that their black colleagues had unfairly painted them with a single broad brush -- and the survey results do support the viewpoint that most officers in the department are not racist. But it does not take many bad apples to create resentment and bitterness, particularly if black officers do not feel comfortable making formal complaints, or if white supervisors fail to recognize that what appears to be a personality conflict between two individuals may actually have a racial context.

Chief Behan insists that the perception of racism within his department is far greater than the reality.

"We found that an incident might have occurred four or five years ago and we take care of the offender," he says. "But then the story gets passed along and nurtured, and here we are, four or five years later and the bitterness still remains."

Results of the 1987 survey suggest that the department had a very serious problem with intolerance a few years ago, before the chief established a Fair Practices Committee to monitor complaints and before he appointed liaison officers, one each for blacks and women, with the power to report directly to him.

"It all comes down to a lack of communication and a lack of trust -- on both sides, blacks and whites," says Detective Donald Byrd, the black officer appointed by Chief Behan to be his liaison with blacks.

"I think we do have a problem with intolerance among a few individual whites on the force," says Detective Byrd. "At the same time, things get viewed by some black officers within a racial context that shouldn't be -- and that aggravates the situation."

I can illustrate Detective Byrd's point: Every black officer I interviewed told me that blacks are under-represented in "glamour," white-collar assignments such as the detective bureaus, tactical squads and the headquarters staff. But after the column appeared, several white officers complained to me that black officers actually are over-represented in the choice assignments, indicating to these whites that the department pampers blacks.

Want to know the truth? Blacks are neither under-represented nor over-represented. The percentage of blacks in those units is about equal to the overall percentage of blacks on the force.

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