City Police Chief's Challenge

February 01, 1994

The murder of a corrections officer outside his Ednor Gardens home Saturday sharply illustrates the challenge facing Baltimore's new police commissioner, Thomas C. Frazier.

A quiet residential neighborhood near Memorial Stadium is struck suddenly by several street crimes. They are capped by a seemingly senseless homicide. An overburdened police department immediately responds by drawing officers from other pressing assignments to step up patrols in an understandably tense neighborhood.

In a chronically undermanned police force like Baltimore City's, tough choices must be made constantly. Like all police departments, Baltimore's is being pulled in different directions: Solve murders. Break up narcotics rings. Get the dope peddlers off the streets. Catch robbers and rapists. Be visible and discourage burglars. Calm domestic fights. Help people in distress. Get to know law-abiding citizens on the beat and guide them to social agencies when they need assistance. And so forth.

The city police department has not been doing a good job of balancing these responsibilities in recent years. Mr. Frazier, who faces a confirmation hearing tomorrow, needs to make some quick decisions on how to allocate the department's resources. He believes the department can fight crime and help people -- he doesn't shy from the label "social worker" -- with its current strength.

Skeptical members of the Baltimore City Council are entitled to some solid explanation of how Mr. Frazier intends to pull this off. He is committed to community policing, using beat officers to help people as much as investigating crimes. A relatively recent fad among progressive police commanders, it is already under fire in cities like New York that have tried it for several years. People are frightened by the rising tide of violent crime, and they want the cops to be seen fighting it, not playing social worker.

However simplistic that may be, public concern can't be fobbed off with the sort of platitudes that emanated from police headquarters in recent years.

If there are three things above all that people have a right to demand of their local governments, they are security from harm, essential services and a decent education for their kids. Too many Baltimoreans aren't getting much of this these days.

When an armed corrections officer like Lt. Jerry Watkins can't make it to his front door in a sedate neighborhood like Ednor Gardens, homilies from City Hall won't suffice. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and his new commissioner owe city dwellers and visitors clear priorities and goals for which they can be held accountable.

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