Schmoke's Police Blues

February 09, 1994|By BRUCE L. BORTZ

It's probably a good thing Kurt Schmoke decided not to run for governor this year. The current four-part series by The Sun's David Simon issues such a searing indictment of the city's police department, and Mr. Schmoke's inability to prevent its collapse, that the mayor instantly would have become damaged political goods.

The report confirmed two widely held, and horrendously harmful, opinions of Mr. Schmoke: that, as a manager, he's been far too slow to act; and that, on crime, he's been wrong-headed and soft.

Depending on how things go over the next 19 months, the report could have the same devastating impact on Mr. Schmoke's re-election prospects. To Mary Pat Clarke, the mayor's announced opponent for next year, has been delivered a document that could make credible a campaign built around improving public safety.

The adroit use of that report could put Mr. Schmoke in a politically untenable position. He couldn't argue that he inherited the department's problems. The report suggests that while budget cuts occurred during the mayoralty of William Donald Schaefer, Mr. Schmoke did not reverse course when drugs began overtaking the system. Nor could he contend that he had little control over the situation. City police commissioner Ed Woods reported directly to him.

The department's problems, while in some ways financial, were also attributable to policy decisions made or endorsed by Mr. Schmoke. After the 1991 election, for instance, he publicly declared the city's imminent move toward community policing. That, it seems, was precisely the wrong direction to head in.

Mrs. Clarke could frame the public safety issue along these lines:

* The mayor himself installed Ed Woods, then for four long years he retained the amiable but inept commissioner as Mr. Woods guided the department into a tailspin. It's one thing to have a misguided mediocrity running some other department -- but not public safety. How patient can city residents be with a mayor who is so patient in matters affecting our lives -- and deaths?

* If the mayor didn't know how bad things had become, then he was negligent. Instead of supervising the police commissioner, he gave him large amounts of money, and let him squander them. The city has paid the price of this neglect; now Mayor Schmoke must pay a price.

The absence of a competitive mayoral opponent for Mr. Schmoke in 1991 allowed the public safety problems to worsen. The city murder rate was climbing; people were worried and angry. Using easily available information, a campaign with an alert researcher would have highlighted the deplorable state to which city safety had sunk. Instead, Mr. Schmoke was allowed to coast through his contest with Clarence ''Du'' Burns; political pressure never surfaced to spot and solve the police department's huge array of problems.

Five months ago, the mayor's people were comforting themselves that except for the homicide rate, which got all the attention, the city's crime rate was actually diminishing. That turns out not to be true.

Worse still, these aides were doubtful and uninterested when told that cities like Houston were making major gains against crime. Against a crime wave sweeping the nation, they seemed to be saying, there wasn't much Baltimore could do.

In the hands of the city's new police commissioner, Tom Frazier, resides a goodly portion of Mr. Schmoke's political future. Perhaps the police department has fallen so far, so fast, that improvements in some areas will be relatively easy to pull off, and gratefully greeted by the electorate.

Perhaps $9 million a year and a new policy can keep more policemen on their jobs, rather than moonlighting. Perhaps privatizing the traffic detail will free more officers for intelligence-gathering and strike-force operations. After all, is letting people out of stadium events really a proper function for a crime-fighting force?

Perhaps a new policy of targeting the ''baddest of the bad guys,'' rather than simply running up arrest records and processing paperwork, will pull the department, and the city, out of its free fall.

And perhaps the public will give the mayor some credit, as it should, for mid-course corrections. He acknowledged that Mr. Woods was the wrong man for the job, forced him out, took a political risk by hiring a white replacement from outside the city's ranks, and gave him a mission of reform.

But the crime situation will remain in the foreground. An extensive update on the police department one year from now is as predictable as Presidents Day sales. Voters will judge Mr. Schmoke on the numbers. If the murder and armed assault rates are not going down, and if successful prosecutions of major offenses are not going up, Mrs. Clarke's public safety argument will resonate.

Only if the statistics show improvement will Mr. Schmoke have a solid chance to occupy the mayor's office for a third term.

Bruce L. Bortz edits The Maryland Report and The Maryland Procurement Report newsletters. He comments for The Sun on Maryland politics.

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