Police Department in Crisis

February 06, 1994

Years of poor management, confused priorities and chaotic staffing policies have reduced Baltimore City's once-vaunted 2,900-strong police force to a seat-of-the-pants operation.

Its robbery and rape units have been decimated. To cope with the crisis of the day -- be it homicides or bank robberies -- the department has given up much of the specialized investigative work that is the backbone of comprehensive crime-fighting.

Over the years, chummy cronyism has replaced clear-headed goal-setting at the top. The department is preoccupied with numbers games that make officials look good.

Easy drug busts take priority -- at the expense of investigating life-threatening assaults and robberies. Some 18,000 drug arrests were made last year -- far more than in an average American city. Yet only 956 of the drug suspects went to prison for any time at all, reducing this seeming push against drugs to a cruel charade.

These are among the key findings of an exhaustive four-part series on the performance of the city police department that starts on today's front page. It offers the most detailed, critical review of the Baltimore City Police Department since the International Association of Chiefs of Police surveyed the agency's numerous shortcomings 28 years ago.

The 1965 chiefs' report focused on the police department's outdated management procedures and fuzzy goal-setting. Its criticisms mobilized Baltimore to demand changes, which were implemented by Donald D. Pomerleau, who rejuvenated the police department in dramatic fashion.

Things have gone downhill since then. Reporter David Simon's series deals with the reality of everyday law-enforcement for the city's 730,000 residents. His surgical examination paints a stark picture of the crisis of the police agency. It ought to prompt the citizens of Baltimore and the city's elected officials to demand fundamental changes in the way the department operates.

As a new commissioner, Thomas C. Frazier, is about to take over, it is time to reform and revitalize the city police department. The agency needs a clearly defined mission that focuses squarely on making the city more secure and inviting for its residents, visitors and businesses.

The confused approach that produced today's crisis was tolerated by a succession of mayors, including Kurt L. Schmoke. It resulted in dangerously declining professionalism within the ranks. Moonlighting is so prevalent, police work often seems a second job to many officers. Ferreting out police corruption has been stymied.

This clearly is no way to run a police department in a major metropolis, whose economic health and civic vitality depend on assured public safety. Baltimore is caught in a ferocious crime wave at the moment. An effective crime-fighting department is imperative. This will require changes of direction and of personnel. But we have no choice. The streets must be made safe once again.

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