Faced with stiff competition for new police recruits and fears that some officers may be forced to leave the department, Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier said yesterday that he is temporarily suspending a controversial policy requiring all new officers to live in the city.
The decision runs counter to a decree from Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke that municipal workers hired after July 1, 1993, must be Baltimore residents or agree to move into the city within one year of their employment.
Opponents of the mayor's executive order have criticized it as a veiled affirmative action measure. The mayor has defended the decree as a way to stabilize working class neighborhoods and to broaden the city's tax base by $4.8 million.
Under Mr. Frazier's ruling, about 240 rookie officers hired in the last year are exempted from the decree and other new officers may follow in coming months if he decides to scrap the policy completely.
The decision comes in the wake of a bitter debate in the state legislature over a bill by Sen. George W. Della Jr., D-Baltimore, that would have barred cities and counties in Maryland from making residency a condition of employment. The measure was defeated through a lobbying by the Schmoke administration.
Like Mr. Della, Mr. Frazier met with applause from union leaders who say the residency policy has produced a crop of less competent city workers.
Mr. Schmoke echoed City Council members in saying he still wants the residency requirement applied to police, but he deferred to Mr. Frazier's expertise.
"There are some within the Police Department who are predicting that he will lose a lot of officers over this and lose them soon," Mr. Schmoke said. "And he doesn't want to review the policy under the gun. I find that hard to argue with.
"Mr. Frazier has shown himself to be very fair and very thorough. I think we can expect him to handle this situation the same way and not allow himself to be swayed by political concerns."
The commissioner described his latest move as a reaction to a hiring crisis in the Baltimore Police Department brought on by a continuing trend of retirements that could leave the department short 130 officers by midsummer.
Combined with an order from Mr. Schmoke to add 330 new officers, the retirements will require the commissioner to absorb more than 800 rookies by 1997 into a department in which nearly half the police force will have less than five years' experience.
The result is a city in desperate need of the best candidates it can get at a time when police departments all over the state have lifted hiring freezes and are competing with Baltimore police on a large scale for the first time in a decade, said Col. Ron Daniel.
"Add the fact that we don't offer the highest salaries around and you have a big enough recruitment disadvantage," said Colonel Daniel. "All the commissioner is trying to do is take down an added barrier that we can't afford right now."
Mr. Frazier said he has an even more immediate problem in the 240 rookies who have joined the force in the last year, some of whom have yet to move into the city.
"Under the residency rule, they would be subject to severe discipline beginning on July 1," he said. "I could lose a lot of them. As tight as the department is now, I have a real concern that we wouldn't be able to police the city through the summer.
"I don't want to find myself short-handed in August."
The commissioner has the authority to rescind the residency rule that his predecessor, Edward V. Woods, put into place after the mayor's decree because the Baltimore Police Department is a state agency that cannot be regulated by the city. The commissioner, however, serves at the pleasure of the mayor.
Mr. Schmoke said he mandated the residency rule after talking to other big city mayors who used similar policies to stop the flight of tax dollars to the suburbs and shore up their economies. But he acknowledged that such rules have hurt recruitment efforts in some cities.
Meanwhile, Mr. Della and union leaders said they saw some vindication in the commissioner's decision.
"I am absolutely pleased to hear it," Mr. Della said. "It's all I wanted to do in the first place was to remove the barriers and get the best possible people out there protecting us -- black, white, men, women or otherwise."
City Council President Mary Pat Clarke questioned the commissioner's action, saying it "sends a contradictory message other city workers."
"I think he's grasping at straws to solve a problem he doesn't yet fully understand," she said. "The basic problem is that we're not paying officers enough to give them an incentive to stay in the department."