New police chief tackles old woes

May 29, 1994|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,Sun Staff Writer

For more than 10 years, the Annapolis Police Department has been a caldron of discontent.

Officers have complained repeatedly of racial discrimination, mismanagement, inadequate job benefits and no chance to advance. Last year, the union representing the 120 sworn officers voted no confidence in Chief Harold Robbins. Now Chief Robbins is gone and the job has fallen to Assistant Chief Joseph S. Johnson, an Annapolis native and veteran of the Washington and Baltimore police departments.

City Council members, union officials and the officers have high hopes for Colonel Johnson, 51, whose official appointment at the end of the year will make him the city's first black police chief.

"He is the finest boss I've ever worked for," said Capt. John Wright, a 24-year veteran of the department who recently was placed in command of the patrol division.

"I've heard nothing but accolades about the man," said Alderman Theresa DeGraff, a Ward 7 Republican and head of the City Council's public safety committee.

As Colonel Johnson takes command, at least some of the old battles seem to have been won.

Racial tensions appear to have subsided since 1984, when the city agreed to increase minority hiring and promotions to settle a discrimination suit by the Black Officers Association (BOA).

At the time, 10 of 95 officers were black. Today, on a force of 116 officers, 31 are black, two are Hispanic and one is Native American.

"You can't get any more fair than it is now," said Capt. Norman Randall, who was Annapolis' seventh black police officer when he joined the force 32 years ago.

Promotion remains a source of contention, said George Kelley, president of the BOA.

"We're still looking for young officers to be in positions to reach midlevel management," Mr. Kelley said.

Chief Robbins attempted to answer the promotion dilemma when he created five corporal positions and filled them with minorities because all 10 corporals within the department were white men.

But 13 officers, including Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins' son-in-law, sued the city. Those officers, all of whom were higher on an expired corporal eligibility list than some or all of those promoted, contended the move violated city code, which provides for merit-based promotions.

An Anne Arundel Circuit Court judge agreed with them, and Colonel Johnson was forced to demote the corporals.

He said he now is looking for a way to include the minorities on the corporal eligibility list he will use in making promotion decisions.

"I'll level the playing field," Colonel Johnson said, "but everyone is going to take the same tests."

More persistent than racial tensions has been the problem of turnover and low morale.

Colonel Johnson said improving the morale is his top priority.

The force has been burdened by a high attrition rate as officers, frustrated with pay, benefits and chance of promotion, leave to seek opportunities elsewhere.

Officers complained that Chief Robbins did little to change the entrenched midlevel management. The force of 121 sworn officers shrank to 106 last year.

Police officials said they could not determine an attrition rate this year.

Ms. DeGraff said morale and opportunities would improve if the city allowed officers to retire after 20 years instead of 25, opening spots for promotion.

Improving medical benefits, including partial payment of medical insurance premiums after retirement, also would entice officers to stay, she said.

"The retention issue is a public safety issue," said James Lowthers, secretary-treasurer of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400, which represents the officers.

The police chief must be an advocate for the officers with the City Council, which sets wages and benefits, Mr. Lowthers said. "The previous chief was not an advocate," he said.

Colonel Johnson said he is working to improve benefits for the officers, but said compensation has been only a minor part of the officers' dissatisfaction.

Many cite a lack of leadership, lack of support from superiors and the lack of upward mobility, he said. Some sergeants and captains have held their rank 20 years.

"That doesn't make for good morale," Colonel Johnson said. "One of my goals will be to create some room."

He has set out to foster promotions down the line by

reorganizing the department to create two majors' positions.

Colonel Johnson, who was appointed by a mayor in his last term of office, has no illusions about his likely tenure. He expects to move on in three to five years.

Because he knows he has little time, he has acted boldly. Within days of being named chief, he began moving employees into new jobs. Even little things changed. Coffee pots in the receptionist's office were moved to the cafeteria to enable the receptionist to hear callers better.

The chief said no one, including the mayor, told him what changes to make and that he wouldn't have taken the job if anyone had. "I'll take proper direction and guidance, but I'll not take interference," he said.

He said he consulted no one when he made the personnel changes a few weeks ago. He concedes that some within and outside the agency have tried to pressure him to promote certain individuals, but he intends to make his own decisions.

The City Council has granted him authority to create the two majors' positions. He said he will select his assistants from the ranks of the lieutenants and captains after they have been ranked by an independent testing agency and the city's personnel director.

The officers seem willing to give the new chief a chance. A month ago, as many as 10 officers had applied to other departments. Seven of those have withdrawn their applications, the chief said.

"It isn't a ringing endorsement of me, but a wait-and-see attitude," he said.

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