Police chief search rouses high hopes Insiders, outsiders see need for strong leader

October 17, 1993|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,Staff Writer

If the prayers of the fed-up and hopeful are answered, he will be a field marshal, philosopher and father-confessor -- a steely leader with a heart of gold who inspires awe when he walks into a room.

Someone with nerve enough to take the oath of office as the head of a once-celebrated Baltimore Police Department battered by charges of corruption, racial favoritism and incompetence.

Someone bold enough to stanch a violent crime rate that is driving out taxpayers and threatening to strangle Baltimore's reputation as a renaissance city.

Someone big enough to work for Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke -- and to tell him no if necessary.

As a secretive committee appointed by the mayor begins to sift through the resumes of 84 applicants for the police commissioner's job, friends of the department from downtown Baltimore to California ainted a portrait last week of the person best suited for the $91,000-per-year post.

And they offered advice on how to get him or her.

"We shouldn't expect a miracle here," said George N. Buntin Jr., executive director of the Baltimore NAACP. "But this is clearly a crucial decision for the mayor and the city. Whoever sits in that police commissioner's seat has to have the capacity to deal with the problems that seem to have overwhelmed us so far."

It is a seat left open by the surprise resignation of Commissioner Edward V. Woods in August -- just as the murder rate was rising toward last year's record 335 homicides.

Gone are the calls for a "black commissioner" or a "white commissioner" in a city where a majority of residents are black and seven out of 10 police officers are white. Gone are the strident appeals from police representatives for a savior from within their own ranks.

"We're at the point where we really don't care if the person is black or white or a man or a woman," says Detective Henry A. Martin, president of the Vanguard Justice Society that speaks for the department's 600 black officers.

That sentiment would have been heresy in the not too distant past, Detective Martin concedes.

"Obviously," he says, "there was a time when we felt that a majority- black city should have a black commissioner. But we're past that now. Give us somebody, anybody, who is going to get the job done. Inside or outside. We don't care where they're from."

Lt. Leander S. Nevin is president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3 and a self-described "old-guard Irish Catholic police" with 37 years in the department. He says: "There's four guys upstairs in the department who have my vote and two of them are black.

"Just give me somebody who isn't going to take any crap. My crap. The mayor's crap. Or anybody else's crap. I want a leader."

In his own way, Mr. Schmoke says he wants the same thing.

"To say the person would have unfettered independence to do as they see fit would be misleading the public and the candidates for the job," Mr. Schmoke said. "But I do expect there to be give-and-take and occasional disagreements.

"That is perhaps something that has been lacking in prior chiefs. I don't know. That's why we are doing a nationwide search. We want to know what the thinking is out there."

What the thinking is precisely -- in the minds of his own officers and some noted police observers -- is that Mayor Schmoke has not allowed his two prior commissioners the freedom to slay the dragons loose inside the department's walls.

Mayoral meddling?

His admirers say his intervention has been well-meaning. His harshest critics say he is meddling in the department's affairs.

That criticism will be the hardest part of the equation for the mayor to solve, because it catches him completely by surprise.

"I have not heard that," he said in an interview last week, his normally measured tone cracking momentarily. "I just haven't heard that. I don't know where that would be coming from."

Lieutenant Nevin of the FOP does not readily give the benefit of the doubt to the mayor, but he says he can see why the mayor is baffled.

"We have a lot of young police who have no respect for the commissioner's office or the command structure," he said. "They think the commissioner is not in charge and the mayor can't get to them.

"That's the perception in the department right now," Lieutenant Nevin continued. "Whether you can trace it to any one thing he did is another question."

Hayes C. Larkins, who has taught criminal justice at the New Community College of Baltimore for 25 years, echoed several ranking officers in attributing the rift between the mayor and the department to a hot night in July two years ago.

A team of narcotics officers, armed with a flawed search warrant, crashed through the door of a relative of the mayor's wife after an informant said he had bought crack cocaine there. The raid came up empty. The mayor, in the thick of a 1991 election campaign, criticized the three officers publicly.

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