Lackluster policing starts at the top

February 09, 1994|By David Simon | David Simon,Sun Staff Writer

Thomas C. Frazier sat stoically as Baltimore vented its wrath: City Council members criticizing the Police Department for inaction; neighborhood leaders pleading for immediate relief; a bereaved father seeking answers for the murder of his son.

"Somebody solve the problem," Kenneth Lee said plaintively. "I'm so despaired. I'm asking for your help."

And Thomas C. Frazier, the man chosen by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to lead the Baltimore Police Department to a better place, made a measured promise at last week's council hearing. "What my guarantee is," he said, "is that with the resources I have, you will get the best performance you can."

With him were his new subordinates -- some of them architects of the failed regime, desperate to avoid the taint; others, antagonists of former Commissioner Edward V. Woods, glad for the new day.They sat impassive as politicians and citizens savaged their agency's performance. They scarcely reacted as Mr. Frazier acknowledged failed strategies, low morale, poor discipline and concerns about corruption.

"Nobody looked very shocked," said one commander later. "You'd have thought they were talking about someone else's police department."

Yet to many in the council chamber two weeks ago, the verbal battering seemed directed at a man not in attendance. "Kurt Schmoke was and is the mayor," says one council member. "It's his Police Department."

A veteran prosecutor, Mr. Schmoke has nonetheless long seemed to many inside his police agency to be peculiarly passionless when it came to fighting crime. "In the past," said one commander last summer, "when we got near 200 felonies a day in the city, you'd have [former mayor and now Gov. William Donald] Schaefer demanding that something be done. Now we're routinely over 300 a day, and no one bats an eye."

While rising violence is a constant preoccupation among city residents, from the housing projects in the poorest neighborhoods to the well-tended enclaves of Roland Park and Guilford, the mayor's most visible priorities seem to be Baltimore's schools, or neighborhood revitalization, or better housing.

He has high ambitions and lofty goals -- to make Baltimore "The City That Reads," for example, or turn Sandtown-Winchester into a national model of urban renewal.

But Mr. Schmoke has been far more reticent in setting goals about dealing with crime.

In 1990, when Baltimore's homicide count topped 300 for the first time in two decades, he declared it intolerable. The numbers would go down the next year, the mayor pledged.

"I know I'm not going to condone it," he said of the murders, "and neither is the commissioner."

The next year, the numbers rose again, and they've been climbing ever since. Mr. Schmoke made no more such promises, and instead chose to address crime as a national problem that afflicts every American city.

The mayor's critics say he chose to tolerate the Police Department's deteriorating performance as well. Having reappointed Mr. Woods, the mayor seemed to accept lackluster results at a time when dramatic leadership was needed, they complain.

"It wasn't that Ed Woods wasn't sincere or that he was any worse than some of the other people we've had running the department," said one police commander.

"But when you're looking at this particular moment in time, the problems confronting the city require more than a caretaker. And that's the best that can be said about the last four years: We had a caretaker."

Though he continued to defend Mr. Woods for months after public criticism of the police administration began a year ago, Mr. Schmoke says now he had trouble communicating with and motivating his police commissioner, adding that he felt unable to remove Mr. Woods, who was serving a six-year term.

Councilman Lawrence A. Bell, D-4th, who a year ago called for Mr. Woods to resign if Baltimore's murder rate did not decline, finds the mayor's stance frustrating, but familiar. Mr. Schmoke also showed a reluctance to replace his housing commissioner, Robert W. Hearn, and first school superintendent, Richard C. Hunter, amid mounting evidence of problems in those agencies.

"The mayor may have shared the view that certain department heads weren't cutting the mustard," says Mr. Bell.

"But when they started to be criticized publicly, he seemed to react to that by sticking with strategies and personnel that weren't working. I think he now sees it differently."

"We need real leadership"

Mr. Schmoke may well be at a loss about how to respond to the city's crime wave -- in which felonies have increased by more than 37 percent since 1987. Asked by a reporter last week about the crime problem, the mayor spoke approvingly of Mr. Frazier and his plans.

The mayor said he expected action from the new commissioner -- assigning more officers to patrol duty and clearing some notorious open-air drug markets. If neighborhood groups organize community watches and work with the Police Department, he said, they'll see changes.

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