Questions linger for Woods in the final days

MICHAEL OLESKER

October 17, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Edward Woods, departing police commissioner of Baltimore, has two weeks left on the job and the rest of his life to figure what went wrong.

He took office in July 1989 and leaves four years later, at age 56, with the drug dealers controlling various street corners, the kids with guns terrorizing neighborhoods, the homicide rate setting annual records, and some at City Hall pointing at Woods and declaring all of this must be his fault, since he is the policeman in charge.

He sees it otherwise. The city scrambles to find his replacement, but it will need more than a change in name to turn around Washington's decade of urban neglect, a failed national policy on drugs, a couple of generations of families coming apart and a police department that is understaffed, underfunded and waiting for financial help to arrive although none is immediately in sight.

"Me?" says Eddie Woods, unwinding in his apartment late the other evening. ''I have peace in my heart. I've done my best. If it was only Baltimore, you could say it's the commissioner's fault, but this kind of trouble is everywhere, and they know it.

"It's not me. But it's frustrating to everyone trying to cope, and so they point fingers. That's what bothers me about this charade. I fell into an era where anybody would have had trouble."

A few days ago, he went to a police academy luncheon, where cadets formed a gauntlet for him to walk through. He sounds moved when he talks about it. He found himself looking back to his own early days in the department, when he never imagined he -- or any other black officer -- would one day head the entire force.

Also, he remembered two years ago, when he got a memo from the mayor telling him there would be no more cadets for a while, because a hiring freeze was coming.

Its meaning was profound: There would be decreasing numbers of police to deal with the increasing city crime.

"I got that memo," Woods said the other night, "and I began to sweat. I thought, 'Has it come to this, where we have to cut police?' It was devastating. It killed us. When you stop the heartbeat, where it takes nine or 10 months to find and train a police recruit, and we're losing people through normal retirement and so forth, it becomes an exodus.

"We were losing 20 to 25 people a month there for a while. In the last four years, we've retired 570 officers. And the drugs and the guns kept coming, and we had to deal with all of this with fewer officers."

Some at City Hall didn't want to hear such talk. There were critical City Council members, and a mayor who seemed torn. There were some police who complained that Woods didn't communicate enough with his top brass. Some said he wasn't a forceful enough leader. They called him a nice guy who didn't have the right stuff for the top job.

"I'm not one to attack," he says softly, "and I won't say they've made me the scapegoat. My feeling is, Baltimore's hit bottom, and we'll start coming back now. I'm still optimistic. We've worked very hard on community partnerships. The recovery has got to come from the neighborhoods themselves, and they're starting to stand up now.

"We've set this in motion, reaching out to the various communities. And look at the Catholic Archdiocese. Thank God they're championing gun control. Those damned guns, that's the real trouble. We've always had drugs, but the guns . . .

"And the archdiocese didn't pull any punches," he says, referring to last week's announcement that the church hierarchy will lobby state legislators for tougher gun laws. "Now, we'll see how the legislators deal with it."

He says he'd like to see "someone local" replace him. "It takes time to learn the agency, and we don't have time. They've got to start out running. We have the talent right in the department, but . . ."

It's too late in the day for him to deal with details, too late in his career to get into departmental specifics. No regrets, he says. He's relaxed. His family's happy. Friends call every day to give support, and job offers already have arrived. Teaching college is a possibility.

Two weeks more, and then he'll be gone. But the rest of his life, he'll wonder about four years of circumstances that veered out of control.

"The rest of my life," he says, "I'll think it was just a very tough time for the city, and I did the best job anybody could do under those conditions. I could go crazy thinking I didn't finish the job. But I won't do that.

"I hope my successor can carry on. I'll sit in my rocking chair, and I'll say, those police who served under me, those hard-nosed police, we did our best. And there are things we set into motion which will help this city into the 21st century. That's my vision. That's what I'll take with me."

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