Why the Mayor Will Probably Pick the Wrong Police Commissioner

HAL RIEDL

August 13, 1993|By HAL RIEDL

In replacing Police Commissioner Edward V. Woods, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is about to embark on a series of blunders that are almost certain to recruit as our next top cop a galloping mediocrity who will be in and out of Baltimore within a few years, and leave a mess for the next mayor to clean up.

Herewith a note of forewarning, in the wan hope that these blunders can be avoided.

Foremost among the mistakes the mayor is about to make is to restrict the search for a new police commissioner to African-American candidates. Now, you'll never get Mr. Schmoke his spokesmen to admit plainly that only blacks need apply; in fact Mr. Schmoke is likely to interview one or two non-blacks to make it look right. But no one seriously expects a non-black to be in real danger of being hired.

One hesitates to ascribe racial chauvinism to Mr. Schmoke, who dislikes playing the race card, even in responding to his harshest critics, and even in the face of the fire he draws from Afro-centric militants. But he chose Edward Woods in 1989 for no better reason than that Mr. Woods was the ranking black officer in the department, even though Mr. Schmoke was warned against Mr. Woods by the Vanguard Justice Society, a group of black officers.

The mayor is more than a little likely to join that limp wisdom according to which only a black person can or should be police commissioner in a majority-black city. (Think about that one: In a majority-white city, should a black person never be police commissioner?)

So, what's wrong with a black commissioner? Nothing -- as long as (s)he's among the best-qualified people for the job, regardless of race or gender. But to be seriously interested only in African-American candidates is to shrink drastically the field of qualified people.

The Baltimore Police Department -- and the majority black city it protects -- are greatly in need of infusions of leadership and morale. That will not happen if the rank and file perceive their new boss as owing everything to the color of his skin. We'll come back to this.

The next mistake the mayor will make is to choose a police careerist -- Have Gun, Will Travel -- without roots in or loyalty to Baltimore.

Mr. Schmoke is confident that the Baltimore job ''is a very attractive position.'' He forgets that most of the candidates likely to be turned up by a national search will regard Baltimore as an intermediate rung on the career ladder.

The national search is apt to produce a play-it-safe sort of commissioner, who will avoid the controversy that genuine reform engenders, lest it impede her or his odyssey toward New York or Chicago or some plum federal job.

Mayors never learn that the fabled national search usually turns up a dud.

Lee Brown came to the job in New York heralded from past assignments as commissioner in Atlanta and Houston. During the riots in Crown Heights, two years ago, he hid in his office at police headquarters.

He quit after two-and-a-half years, and landed a top drug-enforcement job with the Clinton administration, just ahead the Girgenti Report, which lambasted his performance in Crown Heights and accused him of failing to protect his own officers.

Richard Hunter was the product of our national search for a school superintendent.

The next mistake the mayor will make will be to choose a police commissioner who shares his confusion about illegal drugs. If you fundamentally believe the drug laws are all wrong, as the Prohibition laws against alcohol from 1919 to 1933 were wrong, you are apt to be less than whole-hearted about their enforcement.

It's hard to believe that Kurt Schmoke will pick as police commissioner a fire-breathing opponent of the drug trade.

Reuben Greenberg isn't likely to be a candidate for the Baltimore job, and not only because other cities might like to have him. It's also because he is much too serious about crime. Can you imagine Baltimore City evicting someone from public housing as soon as he gets arrested, let alone convicted, as they do in Charleston, S.C.?

Now, if the mayor and his people are still reading this, I would say that not making the first mistake will make the others much less likely. If Mr. Schmoke is genuinely open to non-black candidates, he has a better chance of finding a new commissioner with some sense of loyalty to Baltimore, ferocious toward the predators yet tender to their victims, most of whom are also black.

The key is a truly non-biased search, without regard to race or gender, including present members and recent alumni of the department as well as persons outside it.

Any big-city police administrator these days will have been a veteran of the racial battle-fronts. It is to shoot ourselves in the foot to rule out, for all practical purposes, everyone who is not black. It is also immoral, illegal and unconstitutional.

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