In police front lines, sense of duty falters

February 08, 1994|By David Simon | David Simon,Sun Staff Writer

It got so bad that Lt. Leander "Bunny" Nevin, a 37-year `D veteran of the Baltimore force, felt compelled to say something at his next shift change. He strode into the district roll call, carrying forms authorizing officers to work secondary jobs.

He gave one to every patrolman on the shift.

"Now," he recalls telling his troops, "I want you to fill these forms out. And where it asks you for the name of your secondary employer, I want you to write, 'Baltimore City Police Department.' "

There was laughter, of course, but the lieutenant wasn't finished: "I'm serious, you should fill these out," he told them. "Because it's obvious to me from the way you guys are behaving that this can't be your real job. You're just out there moonlighting as cops, aren't you?"

And on that one shift, in that one district, a couple dozen city officers got the message. For a while, they worked their posts and cleared their corners and made some good arrests. For a while, the lieutenant remembers, the crime rate on his shift began to decline.

"I say you've got to call it like it is," says Lieutenant Nevin, who currently serves as the police union president. "A lot of these guys don't want to work."

Don't want to work? A union local president suggesting that his membership doesn't want to do the job? Isn't it the job of a union leader to defend his rank and file?

"Let me ask you something," Lieutenant Nevin asks. "Could you defend them?"

If a police agency's morale can be measured by the willingness of its men and women to do the job, then the Baltimore Police Department has cause for concern. For, while there are a great many officers willing to do the hard work of policing the city, there are many, too, who lack commitment.

In every police district and in many headquarters units as well, sergeants and lieutenants -- the department's street-level supervisors -- complain of lapsing discipline and declining standards among their troops. Fewer and fewer of those wearing the uniform, they believe, are ready to do the job the way it should be done.

Those supervisors talk of officers unable to write proper police reports; of officers unwilling to make arrests because a court summons would interfere with a secondary job; of officers too frightened to get out of their one-man cars and clear the corners of their posts.

"Police work used to be a calling," says one veteran detective. "Now it's just a job."

The causes, according to many in the agency:

* Poor hiring and recruitment during the 1980s, when a booming economy, declining standards and affirmative action efforts combined to undercut the quality of trainees entering the police academy.

* A growing inability by the department to compete with salaries and opportunities offered by suburban police departments and federal law enforcement agencies.

* An over-reliance on secondary employment to meet the financial needs of city officers. As the pay scale for Baltimore police has become less competitive, department officials have been obliged to allow more and more moonlighting.

* Increasing instances of corruption and malfeasance, fostered in part by an ineffective disciplinary process. An overburdened internal investigations division is unable to probe the growing numbers of allegations in a timely manner, while disciplinary hearings often take more than a year, according to department sources.

In particular, former Police Commissioner Edward V. Woods, who retired in November amid criticism, and his deputies are blamed for failing to take any serious stand -- either publicly or within the agency -- about increasing incidents of corruption.

"There was a feeling that if you didn't talk about something, or didn't act on it, then it might not exist," says one commander. "I think that attitude may soon be changing."

Soon after Mr. Woods departed, Deputy Commissioner Melvin McQuay promised action. "If anyone has any information about corrupt acts by officers, they can call me directly," he said in an interview. "This agency cannot and will not tolerate such acts if we are to maintain the confidence of the community."

Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier, speaking at his City Council confirmation hearing last week, was equally emphatic. "My first order to my deputies is that the internal investigations division will now report directly to my office."

Mr. Frazier added that he ordered subordinates to expand the internal investigations unit and "staff it with the best that we have."

'More and more dead wood'

If policing an American city amid the worst crime wave in its modern history requires all an officer's energies, then Baltimore is a city in need. For most of the 2,960 officers in the city department, moonlighting is the standard.

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