As police chief talks up his plans, early word from the public is favorable

March 05, 1994|By Michael James | Michael James,Sun Staff Writer

In a busy week of community meetings, interviews and radio talk shows, new Baltimore Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier outlined his plans for the beleaguered department -- and scored some points with the public in the process.

"This guy's got charisma; he's got charm. He has the ability to take heat and not lose his cool," said Dan Zaccagnini, who heard Mr. Frazier speak to the Associated Italian American Charities club in Little Italy.

"We were quite impressed with him. He's got a very smooth approach," said Mr. Zaccagnini, a Maryland parole commissioner who grilled Mr. Frazier about how he would handle lenient treatment of juvenile offenders.

Throughout the week, Mr. Frazier -- while describing his plans to decentralize the department and implement a workable community policing plan -- stressed that he would be a good public relations man.

"I'm not saying it's all of the problem, but some of the problem is image. A lot of cops have done a good job, but nobody in the department's been telling the story to the public," he told about 70 business leaders at the Omni Inner Harbor Hotel.

Always appearing in full uniform -- most commissioners have opted to wear civilian clothes -- Mr. Frazier told citizens and officers this week that he plans to develop a good rapport with the news media. Among his ideas are playing host to monthly "media breakfasts" and attending news conferences to publicize arrests.

Yesterday, for example, he met with the media to announce arrests in the slaying of a Morgan State University student Feb. 17.

That is in sharp contrast with his predecessor, Edward V. Woods, who avoided reporters and often refused interviews -- even when he was being publicly criticized by some city officials.

Mr. Frazier' approach seems to have paid off. The commissioner -- who at his former department in San Jose, Calif., was known for his shrewdness with the media -- has been well received.

"I'm amazed at his grip for the issues in a relatively short period of time. The guy's been back and forth to San Jose over the last 30 to 45 days, and it seems like he's still gotten a sense for what the problems are here," said Phil Kunzelman, a Maryland National Bank vice president who heard the new commissioner speak at the Omni.

In all of his presentations, Mr. Frazier, 48, said that one of his main goals is to decentralize power in the department, giving precinct commanders more authority.

He said he had met earlier in the week with each of the majors from Baltimore's nine police precincts and told them to draft plans for running their territories.

"I can't run the entire Police Department from my office," Mr. Frazier said. "I'm trying to tell the district commanders that they are the chiefs of a 200-member department. My responsibility is to deal with the overarching concerns, like the budget and the labor contract."

Stressing that the department needs creative thinking to combat a lack of resources, he said he had told district commanders to revamp their staffing to put more officers on the street during the busier hours.

"Right now, there are the same number of cops on the street at 4 a.m. on a Monday morning as there are at 11 o'clock on a Friday night. That's got to change," he said.

Community policing -- which he said in all of his speeches "is the buzzword of the 1990s" -- is one of Mr. Frazier's highest priorities.

Effective use of beat officers in communities is going to depend on his own success in freeing up officers' time, he said. Most officers spend too much time doing paperwork and responding to minor incidents, he said, problems that he hopes to address with changes in the city's 911 emergency system.

Much of the public's questioning of Mr. Frazier has been on general issues such as drug legalization, gun control and juvenile enforcement.

The commissioner said he opposes legalizing drugs but supports needle-exchange programs. He also said he supports gun control, noting, "I don't know why we need another 10 to 15 million more guns on the street in the next five years."

In his Little Italy speech, he pointed to "a failure in the juvenile justice system. I think what happened was that, 30 or so years ago, juvenile law was modified so that a youthful offender would not be treated as an adult for his youthful mistaken judgment," he said.

"That was in the days of schoolyard fights and joy-riding. These are the days of crack cocaine, drive-by shootings, carjackings and millions of weapons on the street. It's a different day and a different time. Some of these kids are real bad actors, and they ought to be treated that way."

Although Mr. Frazier is off to a popular start, he can expect tough times, said former Baltimore Police Commissioner Frank Battaglia, who saw him in Little Italy.

"He seems to be a pretty good man. But they've got to give him what he needs to do the job. He needs more equipment, more manpower," Mr. Battaglia said, noting that the department has 2,900 officers, fewer than it had 30 years ago.

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