Rank and file lost faith in Woods' ability to lead Black police group had never backed him

August 05, 1993|By David Simon | David Simon,Staff Writer

In the minds of the men and women who served under him, Commissioner Edward V. Woods wasn't the root cause of the myriad problems plaguing the 3,000-officer agency, but the rank-and-file of the Baltimore Police Department say they had long ago stopped looking to the commissioner for real solutions.

And that, say some of Mr. Wood's ranking commanders, was the problem.

"He did not bring leadership to the department, and we are desperately in need of leadership," says one member of the command staff, who, like other officers interviewed yesterday, spoke under the condition of anonymity. "The bottom line is that Eddie Woods is a nice, sincere man who was deep over his head when it came to police work."

That assessment of a police professional who battled his way through the ranks might seem unduly harsh, but many of those who served under Mr. Woods have privately been saying the same things for four years.

In fact, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke heard similar opinions when he first considered Mr. Woods as a replacement for Commissioner Edward J. Tilghman, who was forced to retire while battling cancer. Those opinions came from an unlikely source.

At a private meeting with members of the Vanguard Justice Society, an organization of black officers, the mayor heard Vanguard leaders suggest that Mr. Woods would be a poor choice to run the department. Members of the group told the mayor that while there were many other qualified black candidates, they would prefer a white commissioner to Mr. Woods, sources said.

The mayor said he understood their concerns and thanked them for their candor, the sources said. But after meeting with politically powerful city ministers who thought differently, the mayor chose Mr. Woods anyway.

The effect on the department, according to veteran commanders and line officers, was four years of status quo. As crime was growing, they said, there was a consistent decline in professionalism, morale and -- most important -- the department's ability to deter that crime.

Says Councilman Lawrence Bell, D-4th, who chairs the City Council's Subcommittee on Public Safety: "I think it's regrettable that the mayor did not move on this earlier, when it was evident that there were problems in the Police Department."

Mr. Bell, who seven months ago called for Mr. Woods to resign if Baltimore's murder rate did not decline, likened the matter to Mr. Schmoke's reluctance to replace his housing commissioner and school superintendent amid mounting evidence of disorder in those agencies, though such action proved inevitable in each case.

Schmoke defense

In his own remarks yesterday, Mr. Schmoke suggested that much of the city's crime problem -- particularly the record number of killings -- was beyond Mr. Woods' control. The mayor said he had been unwilling to let his commissioner leave under Mr. Bell's ultimatum.

"I didn't think he should retire . . . when people were making outrageous statements about how he alone could turn around our homicide problem. Statements like that trivialize the problem," the mayor said.

Even critical subordinates concede that Mr. Woods was asked to contend with a crime problem fueled by poverty, widespread drug use and the proliferation of handguns with an emaciated department.

Between 1988 and last year, calls for police service jumped from 677,000 to 841,000 -- an increase of about 24 percent. During that same period, the department's strength -- already depleted by hundreds of positions since the late 1970s -- fell by another 5 percent.

A telling statistic: In 1987, there were more than 20 Baltimore officers to handle every 100 crimes. By last year, the ratio had dropped to less than 14 officers for the same workload.

"Eddie took command just as the machine was breaking down," said one commander. "He never really knew what hit him."

But another member of the command staff, citing Mr. Wood's performance during the growing crisis, was more critical: "When you have crime problems like we have . . . you need someone who can aggressively move the department."

Many in the department say Mr. Woods seemed incapable of directing what resources remained. "It wasn't just that Eddie Woods couldn't grasp the problems," said another commander. "He relied on people below him with whom he was comfortable. And the people that made Eddie comfortable didn't have a clue either. You go down the list of top commanders and you have to get down to [Col. Leon] Tomlin to find any prolonged field command experience."

Cleaning house

From colonels to patrolmen, officers contacted yesterday seemed to agree that the appointment of an outside professional to lead the department would be the best prescription for change.

"We need someone who isn't politically beholden or politically compromised, someone who can clean house," said one member of the command staff.

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