Remaking a police force

March 14, 1994|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,Sun Staff Writer

On the table in Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier's office eight floors above Fayette Street sits a wooden plaque. Illuminated by a lamp, it's impossible for police commanders to miss when they come into the room: "Tom's three rules" of communication.

"Show Up."

"Pay Attention."

"Tell The Truth."

"If you're gonna talk the talk, you better walk the walk," Mr. Frazier says. "If you expect to be taken seriously, you have to take people seriously."

He can keep this up for an hour, dispensing maxims for living like a Zen philosopher. And they're more than just words. These and other Frazierisms are already changing the Baltimore Police Department -- and nowhere have they been more clearly heard than in the offices of his nine district commanders.

Now, the men and women who oversee the daily fight against crime are talking bluntly about how years of mismanagement under Mr. Frazier's predecessor, Edward V. Woods, abetted the spiraling violence in their districts. And they are predicting nothing short of a revolution under the new chief.

Mr. Woods -- whose four years as commissioner were marked by cuts in key crime-fighting units and record murder rates two years in a row -- refused to comment.

"You have no idea what it's been like to sit here and watch us lose the city and not be able to do anything about it," said Maj. Alvin A. Winkler, whose 4-square-mile district in East Baltimore logged 500 shootings last year. "And you have no idea how good it feels to know we're finally going to take it back. This man knows how."

Mr. Frazier's plan is simple, they say -- so simple that it can't help but reduce violent crime in the city.

"Empower the district commanders, arrest offenders, take back the drug corners and hold them," Commissioner Frazier says, describing his oft-repeated mantra for success.

Mr. Frazier, confirmed last month by the City Council, has translated those words into action. He has shattered the decades-old command structure of the Baltimore Police Department, giving his commanders control over their budgets and troops for the first time.

No longer will they need permission from headquarters to discipline wayward officers, spend overtime money or send tactical squads into neighborhood hot spots.

"As long as I don't put my people in Russian Army uniforms, I can do just about anything I think is necessary," said Maj. Margaret W. Patten of the Northern District. "I feel like I have a whole new job."

The move has already increased the number of officers on the street, improved discipline and sent a message to the rank-and-file that it matters what they think, commanders say.

'Up to my ears in guns'

"In the past, the district commander was told to go out there and sit in that chair, attend the community meetings and make things look normal," said Maj. Victor D. Gregory of the Western District. "All decisions were made at headquarters, whether I agreed with them or not.

"Meanwhile, I was up to my ears in guns and drugs, and they were talking about bicycles."

Sooner or later, the district commanders all come around to the patrol bikes -- the $900 Cannondale models with the gel-cushioned seats.

Go back to last summer, the district commanders say, when then-Commissioner Woods decided to have officers patrol the city's neighborhoods on bikes, reasoning that they would be better able to spot crimes than officers racing by in police cruisers.

At a meeting in headquarters, the nine district commanders were told they would each receive four bikes -- whether or not they needed them. They were then told to assign as many as eight officers to ride them, whether or not they had officers to spare.

Bikes a hit in north

The bikes were a hit in the northern police districts because they were a great way to patrol the parks and wide boulevards of Baltimore's most affluent neighborhoods. But they made little sense in other parts of the city.

In the 13-square-mile Southern District, where tank farms and industrial plants dominate the landscape, the bikes were inefficient. In the Eastern and Western districts, where drug dealing and gunfights require a rapid response, they proved vulnerable and slow.

"The bikes were great public relations because the residents love them, but they didn't do anything to help me cover the two-thirds of my district that's industrial," said Maj. Robert L. DiStefano of the Southern District.

"They seem to be catching on with the officers, but the point is nobody ever asked us what we thought of the idea. The decree just came down from headquarters that we shalt have four bikes when what we really needed was more cars."

Similarly, when drugs became the major public issue of the 1980s, headquarters gave each district four drug investigators -- even though burglaries and car thefts are a far greater problem in most districts. Likewise, each district was given roughly the same complement of 200 or so patrol officers.

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