Baltimore's crisis in blue

February 09, 1994

Despite all the hoopla about high-tech equipment and innovations in patrolling techniques, effective crime fighting always boils down to one thing: a seasoned policeman with the time and energy to prevent a crime or solve it afterward. Baltimore has a lot of seasoned officers, but not enough of them on the street enforcing the law.

The Baltimore City Police Department is short 140 officers from its authorized strength. With violent crime increasing, the number of police has dropped by 600 over the past two decades. Caseloads are staggering -- impossible to investigate with anything resembling professional attention. Specialized squads assigned to investigate violent crimes like rape and robbery have been decimated.

The series of articles by David Simon that concludes today in the news columns paints a devastating picture of the Baltimore City Police Department. Some of the trouble can be laid at the feet of rank-and-file officers. There are disciplinary problems. Many are forced by low pay to work two jobs, inevitably stealing energy from their police work. Others should never have been hired or promoted in the first place.

But the biggest part of the problem is at the top, not the bottom, of the department. In recent years, many bad policy decisions and inept administrative actions have done more to deprive the department of effective manpower than have the unfilled vacancies or badly supervised malingerers.

A preoccupation with arrests -- any old kind of arrest -- rather than effective crime suppression is evidence of weak leaders seeking the camouflage of impressive but meaningless statistics. The decimation of specialized investigation squads to bolster units working on the sorts of crimes that attract media or political attention robs citizens of the protection they are entitled to. It is inexcusable that only one detective was assigned to investigate every rape case in the city -- some 300 a year.

The fault doesn't stop at police headquarters. In Kurt L. Schmoke we have a mayor with considerable experience in law enforcement. He doesn't hesitate to get deeply involved in the schools, where he has no expertise, but professes to give the police leadership a loose rein. For him to say that he had doubts about the department's flummery on drug arrests but "felt I had to let them try" is nothing short of astonishing.

Mr. Schmoke appears at last to have found himself a strong, competent police commissioner in Thomas C. Frazier. Despite the city's fiscal straits, the mayor and Commissioner Frazier had better start coming up with some answers. Failure to do so in reasonable time could have unpleasant political consequences for Mr. Schmoke.

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