Police rotation is a roll of the dice, critics say

April 04, 1994|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,Sun Staff Writer

Sgt. Gary Childs is a machine -- an around-the-clock, door-banging, murder-solving machine. In his eight years as a homicide detective, he has sent many a killer to jail who might otherwise still be free.

While others spend their vacations in Ocean City, he spends his at FBI seminars in Quantico, Va. Not including his master's degree in criminal justice, he figures he's spent about $2,000 of his own money on books and conferences molding himself into a top-flight murder detective.

"There's no doubt about it," said Lt. Bob Stanton of the homicide unit. "He consistently has one of the highest clearance rates up here. And they're not lightweight cases either. Gary has cleared some of the worst homicides we've had in the past few years."

But Sergeant Childs may soon be out of his job, a casualty of a controversial policy by newly appointed Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier that will force police officers to change posts every few years regardless of performance. The policy will be implemented by the fall.

The new chief argues that it's the only way to circumvent "a good old boy system" that dispenses elite jobs with fat overtime salaries to officers with connections while excluding blacks, women and promising young officers.

That same system also keeps some veterans in plum assignmentslong after their productivity wanes and prevents junior officers from getting the experience they need to advance -- prompting many to leave for other departments.

"We're tremendously underrepresented in the raw number of black officers and the promotion of black officers," Mr. Frazier said. "And our attrition rate is killing us. We cannot hope to build a better department when people are leaving all the time because of a lack of opportunities."

But the policy has put the new chief on a collision course with the police union and longtime veterans of specialized units such as the bomb squad, K-9 patrol and homicide who say it is unfair and unwise to push them out of their jobs at the height of their careers.

"Where's the reward for a job well done?" asked Lt. Leander S. Nevin, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3. "Where's the incentive for these guys who busted their butts for 15 years and gave up other opportunities to get good at their jobs? He's changing the rules in the middle of the game."

The policy also has drawn concern from judges, medical examiners and prosecutors who fear that the new chief's plan to dismantle Baltimore's celebrated 47-member homicide division in the face of record murder rates two years in a row carries the potential for disaster.

They point to 1992 in Washington, D.C., where 467 murders occurred and the arrest rate dropped 50 percent after younger officers replaced veteran homicide detectives. Eventually, the department did an about-face by recalling the veterans and hiring more detectives.

The same year, Baltimore recorded 335 murders and city homicide detectives posted a 75 percent clearance rate with no staff increases.

"We're talking about drug dealers who have shown a marked propensity in recent years to kidnap or murder witnesses and to keep on killing until they are caught," said Circuit Judge Elsbeth Bothe in a recent interview. "We have been really fortunate in this city to have some of the best detectives in the business. It's hard to imagine what the last few years would have been like without them."

Rotation common elsewhere

Adding fuel to the fire, the commissioner's new rule will topple a promotion system that is almost as old as the department itself and will make Baltimore the only major East Coast city with such a blanket rotation plan.

But James J. Fyfe, a criminal justice professor at Temple University and nationally recognized author on police issues, said rotation policies in some form are common in the Sun Belt cities of the West.

"It's shocking to Easterners and very upsetting to cops who have gotten used to a certain way of doing things," said Mr. Fyfe, a former New York City police officer. "But these policies are the norm in other places. And you don't tend to see the disastrous consequences people in Baltimore are predicting -- as long as the chief is careful how he goes about it."

Contrary to the "myth of homicide detectives as supermen," he said, the job is actually not all that complex.

"Any good street cop with a pool of reliable informants who is willing to work a case to death can solve a murder," he said. "Homicide detectives have this mystique and cache from television and movies. But the fact is, most cases are not solved by guys like Columbo."

Commissioner Frazier, a former deputy chief in San Jose, Calif., notes that his old department has a rotation policy and that its rate of solved homicides is comparable to Baltimore's.

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