A model for city police commissioner

Richard Wendell Fogg

September 03, 1993|By Richard Wendell Fogg

HAVE Baltimore's crime and police problems made the city ready to attract a first-class police commissioner to replace Edward Woods and give the Police Department adequate resources?

I was in Chicago in the 1960s when a police problem threatened to blow the lid off city government. A 23-year-old burglar testified in court that police officers had helped him hide his loot in the trunks of their cars and then had taken it to fences. They also helped the burglar by monitoring their police radios.

In 1960, Mayor Richard J. Daley (Richard the First) appointed Orlando Wilson, a South Dakotan who was teaching criminology in California, to run the 11,000-person Chicago Police Department and gave him the needed resources. The result was a safer city, pride on the force and fascination among citizens over Wilson's reforms. Some of these could be lessons for Baltimore.

Mayor Daley asked Wilson to run the committee that was searching for a new commissioner. Wilson was the dean of the Police Science Department at the University of California at Berkeley. Previously, he had been the chief of police in Kansas City, where he had cleaned up the considerable crime in a tough city.

Daley's committee members quickly realized that Wilson was their man, and the mayor asked him to accept the top job. Wilson said he would do it only if the salaries of patrol officers were increased by one-third. If he was going to stop police corruption, he wanted them paid well enough to resist temptation. The mayor said the money wasn't there. Wilson was adamant. The mayor got the money from the state, and Wilson took the job.

One of his first moves was to appoint a 150-person internal intelligence group. These people dressed in civilian clothes and drove their cars around the city just fast enough to get speeding tickets. When stopped by an officer, they passed a $10 bill along with their license and registration. If the officer accepted the money, the intelligence official made an immediate arrest. At other times, these officials dressed as bums and lay in the gutter with a $5 bill clearly visible in their pocket. If a police officer took it, they jumped up and made an arrest. Corruption declined.

Then Wilson introduced a 911 system that brought emergency calls to dispatchers with electronic boards showing where all police cars were. Cars headed for the emergency even as callers described it. A secretary also listened in and made a record that a supervisor used to see that all calls were handled properly. The record time from call to arrival by police was seven seconds.

Next Wilson eased the work load on the busiest precincts, even though he reduced their number from 38 to 21. He asked for a large map of the city with a pin placed at the site of every serious crime. He used strings to indicate precinct boundaries. Then he moved the strings so that each new precinct had about the same number of crimes with which to deal. Wilson, who had started his career walking a beat in Berkeley in 1921, put as many officers on foot patrol as he could, believing this was the most effective way to address crime.

A friend who monitors the police radio in Baltimore tells me that in some districts police rush from one scene to another, while there is comparatively little activity in others. Perhaps redistricting, not just increasing the number of officers, would help in Baltimore.

After improving the Chicago Police Department, Wilson issued a challenge to citizens to go four blocks in a dangerous neighborhood without seeing a police car. I took the challenge, and Wilson was right; I always saw one or more squad cars.

On the negative side, Wilson did not take on the racketeers, who were powerful in Chicago. An apparent negative effect of his work was that the crime rate went up at first. He said this wasn't because there was more crime, but because more crime was being reported and investigated. By 1963, overall crime was declining in Chicago, while it was increasing elsewhere.

Wilson retired the year before the police riot at the Democratic National Convention in 1968. (He died in 1972.) Who knows what would have happened had Wilson been in command? Perhaps, as one police source speculates, there would still have been a riot.

I remember how exciting it was to watch thoroughly competent police work develop in Chicago in the mid-1960s. Just as the right athletic coach or school principal can make all the difference, so can a police commissioner. Let's get a top-notch one for Baltimore.

Richard Wendell Fogg writes from Baltimore.

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