Baltimore's next to cop: a visionary or a dictator?

January 02, 1994|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,Staff Writer

In the land of computer chips and garlic farms -- where the Guadalupe River flows and the techno-gentry wire their homes to keep out the Asian refugees and Mexican farm workers -- Tom Frazier is known as the great facilitator.

He's the guy who gets the local residents talking to each other in a city where people speak 44 languages. He's a fixture on the civic chicken dinner circuit, whether it's an NAACP awards banquet or a gay pride picnic.

He's the face of the San Jose Police Department -- the deputy chief who stands up in front of the cameras when the heat is on.

Now, Thomas C. Frazier is coming to Baltimore.

Chosen by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke from a field of 24 candidates as the city's next police commissioner, the 48-year-old Vietnam veteran and father of three is the first out-of-town nominee for the job in more than 30 years.

After confirmation hearings by the City Council in two weeks, he is expected to take command of a 2,900-member department overwhelmed by a record murder rate and dogged by charges of brutality, petty corruption, questionable shootings and internal racial politics.

And Mr. Frazier -- trained as a police reformer in one the of nation's most progressive police departments -- will hit Baltimore like a whirlwind, say friends and detractors in his hometown.

"He's a heavy-handed, politically correct, New Age cop," said Bruce Jensen, a San Jose attorney and former police officer. "He's been hand-picked for so many special assignments out here that he's got thumb prints all over him. The community types love him because he's such a teddy bear. But inside the department, he's known as a tough son of a b.

"He's probably going to be a great police chief for Baltimore."

Still, in a city where race and class divisions form the subtext of most civic discourse, San Jose's brawny, white deputy chief of police has drawn a few hot volleys from younger minority advocates who described him as an old-style police authoritarian.

"He has been almost arrogant," said Juan Haro, an activist in the Hispanic community who has grappled with the department over its refusal to let civilians review the disciplining of abusive officers. "His whole attitude has been that he knows what's best for the city and the people of San Jose."

In the teeming Asian quarter of east San Jose and among homeless advocates, Mr. Frazier has drawn fire as the architect of operations to sweep out Asian gangs and move squatters from the city's downtown business district.

But balancing such harsh assessments are other community leaders who describe him as "a liberal" and a "forward thinker" -- the man who ordered his own cops to turn over their investigative files in police shootings to NAACP leaders, who forbid his officers to use flesh-shredding Black Talon bullets, who serves on more than half-a-dozen do-gooder committees.

To predict his course, they say, Baltimore need look no further than the record of a man named Joe McNamara -- the visionary chief of the San Jose Police Department and Mr. Frazier's mentor for 15 years.

"I loved playing cops and robbers as much as the next guy," said Mr. Frazier, who was a 31-year-old sergeant when Mr. McNamara took over the department in 1976. "But I could also see that police work was changing and that this guy wasn't going to wait for those changes to fall on him.

"He knew that cops were going to be expected to be more and do more in the future. And he was determined to be ahead of the curve. I made up my mind that if it was at all possible I was going to be there with him, to do whatever it took."

By all accounts, he succeeded.

"Tom made himself a carbon-copy of McNamara," said Mr. Jensen, the San Jose attorney and former police officer. "If you like McNamara, and a lot of people do, you're going to love Tom Frazier."

'Tom Terrific'

By the time Mr. McNamara arrived in San Jose in 1976, then-Sergeant Frazier had already won a reputation as a cowboy -- the kind of guy whose name was always somewhere on the report when a big bust went down. He had joined the force some 10 years earlier while still a student at San Jose State University, after a family friend arranged for him to ride with a patrol officer for a night.

But he joined the Army a year later and was sent to Vietnam to advise a North Vietnamese reconnaissance unit in the Mekong Delta, an experience he describes as "harrowing -- bullets, bodies. Not much fun."

When he returned home, he defied his father's wishes that he go to law school and join the family firm, choosing to go to work full time for the San Jose Police Department.

Once on the force, he volunteered repeatedly for dangerous jobs -- serving in an undercover narcotics unit, a stakeout squad and the SWAT team -- that were also high in prestige.

At one point, he befriended the leader of a Mexican-based gambling ring, moved into his apartment and put together a case that eventually led to the arrest of 21 people.

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