Astonishing. The mayor who overruled his school superintendent on some education decisions was unwilling to second-guess his police commissioner. This from Kurt L. Schmoke, who has little expertise in education but a lot of experience in law enforcement. The recent series on the Baltimore Police Department by David Simon discloses a ship with faltering hands at the helm. Mr. Schmoke wasn't the man at the helm, but the mayor picked the helmsman, gave him little guidance, displayed little impatience over soaring violence and stuck with his police commissioner too long.
With the appointment of a new police commissioner who shows promise of being a strong leader, the temptation is to look ahead with hope rather than backward with rancor. Still, neither newly inaugurated Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier nor the citizens of Baltimore can understand or evaluate what comes next in the Police Department without fully grasping what has come before. In his series of articles Mr. Simon painted a picture of a police force in sorry straits.
Rather than take aggressive action against most kinds of violent crime, police commanders attacked high profile crimes that attract media attention and sought phony evidence of success by making thousands of cheap arrests of low-level drug peddlers. The kinds of crimes that eat up investigators' time and money were neglected in favor of those that promised quick but insignificant results. As Mr. Frazier has already noted, personnel have been badly deployed and other resources misused. And as Mr. Simon made clear in his articles, rank and file officers have labored under weak leadership.
By reaching outside the department for a new commissioner, Mr. Schmoke appears to have belatedly recognized how badly the police force has slipped in the past decade. Not all of the problems started in his administration, but six years have slipped by while they got worse. The mayor has taken some daring positions on combating the narcotics epidemic and its corrosive effect, for which he deserves credit. Still, the soaring rates of homicide and other violent crimes did not seem to galvanize him as did, for example, the equally vital plight of the public schools.
By announcing his intent to wear a uniform often, something his predecessors rarely did, Mr. Frazier seems to be proclaiming a restored emphasis on solid, professional policing. He is probably shrewd enough not to go for quick, flashy results without substance. Baltimore has had enough of them. But crime is bound to be a major issue in next year's electioneering. It will be a real challenge to restore public confidence in a badly mismanaged department by then.