A police commissioner from the '80s sizes up the department's new leader

Q&A

March 15, 1994|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,Sun Staff Writer

Surrounded by his plaques and mementos, with his silver police commander's saber hanging on the wall, Frank J. Battaglia rolls his former boss' name around in his mouth like a marble and lets it fall.

"Pomerleau," he says -- as in Donald D. Pomerleau, the almost legendary commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department from 1966 to 1981 -- "was a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He could be very nice and then suddenly turn bitter cold or angry. Nobody could hoot and holler like that man.

"This new commissioner is nothing like him. Tom Frazier is warm, very humble. And he seems to really understand what it's like to be a cop on the street."

If anybody in town is qualified to make such comparisons these days, it's Mr. Battaglia. The 80-year-old son of Little Italy served for more than four decades in the police force under so many mayors and chiefs that he has trouble remembering all their names. By retirement in 1984, Mr. Battaglia had risen through the ranks to become police commissioner himself for three years.

Q: As the new commissioner takes over the department, what do you think is the single greatest hurdle he faces?

A: Politics. He has to keep the politicians out of his business because nothing will destroy a police department faster than that. He has to be free to run the show if he's going to be held accountable for it. I think he has Mayor Schmoke's assurance that he will let him do that. But it remains to be seen.

Q: You hear that a lot in police circles. What does it mean in practical terms?

A: No commissioner is going to be able to do anything meaningful if he's constantly looking over his shoulder and waiting for the mayor to drop the hammer on him.

Tom Frazier didn't come here with a magic wand. It's going to take him three or four years to have any real impact.

Q: It doesn't seem as though some people are willing to give him that much time.

A: That's right. And that's what I mean about politics.

When people start yelling, the politicians pick up the phone and look for somebody to blame. And if they do that to this new commissioner, they shouldn't be surprised if the department doesn't improve. If he can't do the job, that's another question. But he's one of the brightest police commanders I've ever met.

Q: What is it that impresses you about him?

A: He comes from a place [the San Jose, Calif., Police Department] that's big on computers and communications and high tech.

Q: What about his personal style? He's a lot younger than his predecessors. Do you have any sense that he's doing things differently?

A: Definitely. For one thing, he wears his uniform every day, which is not something that a lot of commissioners ever did in this city. That sends a message when he's on the street. He's showing his officers that he's a working cop.

Q: It's also good public relations.

A: That's true, and part of his job is to restore public confidence.

But he's out there a lot, from what I've seen, and that tells me he takes police work seriously. It's not a desk job to him. Officers will always work harder for a commander who gets out of his office and works with them in the street.

Q: What do you think of his idea of getting rid of the department's system of centralized command and giving control to the district commanders? Now, they can deploy their officers anyway they want without approval from headquarters. They can authorize overtime and disciplinary action. Considering that he just dismantled a system you helped build, does it make sense?

A: The centralized command was really put into place by Pomerleau as a way of getting control over the corruption we were having back in the '60s. It was also part of the recommendations of the task force that reviewed the department.

Q: Isn't the department facing some of the same problems today?

A: To a certain extent, if what I hear is true. But the times have changed.

You have the drugs and violence today, not contained. It's out in the open.

[The city] also was giving Pomerleau all the equipment and resources he needed back then, more than he needed. We had 800 cars and an extra shift of officers and a 300-member tactical unit that we could send anywhere in the city if there was trouble.

All of those units have been drawn down since then.

Q: So decentralizing the command structure makes more sense?

A: When the police are trying to do a lot more with a lot less, you might want to give your district commanders more control to speed up the decision-making. Yes.

You also want them out in the street working with their people, and you might get more of that if you give them more authority. When I was Pomerleau's chief of patrol, we did that a lot. If there was a problem, we sent the command staff into the street.

Q: Has that happened much in recent years?

A: I don't think so. And that's going to be one of Mr. Frazier's hardest jobs.

He needs to find the good people in the department and bring them up, guide them and train them to take those key positions. Then, he needs to find the sergeants, lieutenants, majors and deputy commissioners who are just going through the motions and get rid of them if he has to.

Q: That sounds like Donald Pomerleau talking. Do you see any similarities between him and Tom Frazier?

A: Nobody was like Donald Pomerleau. He was a great administrator with a lot of knowledge about weapons and tactics and leadership. We made tremendous progress under him.

But he came here from the military. He was a retired Marine, and he thought you could run a police department the same way as you do a military unit.

Tom Frazier is a cop. He understands how cops think. He knows what they want. We're all fortunate to have him. The mayor found a police officer to run the Police Department.

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