Spotlight on State Police

July 08, 1994

If Maryland State Police Superintendent Larry W. Tolliver really still thinks his raid on The Block last January was a success, there's a larger problem than a bungled operation. One that demands a larger solution than shuffling around some of the commanders in the drug bureau. The TV spectacular in Baltimore's sleazy cluster of clip joints has accomplished little in the way of law enforcement. But it has exposed serious deficiencies in the narcotics operation. Which raises the question whether it's time for a searching look into the entire agency's operations.

The demotion and apparently punitive transfer of several senior officers in one unit, together with serious disciplinary charges against three veteran troopers there, do not necessarily tarnish the entire force. The state police perform most of their duties in a highly professional manner. The force has grown far beyond its beginnings as a highway patrol, and it is in many respects a sophisticated modern department. But sometimes unmonitored growth leads to structural weaknesses, and the Block raid fiasco could be pointing to some.

In such circumstances it would be reasonable to expect a governor to take a searching look at his police department to see whether it needs administrative or other reforms. But that won't happen soon in Annapolis. Gov. William Donald Schaefer petulantly protects Colonel Tolliver, whom he promoted from head of his personal security (and errand-running) force over the heads of more experienced officers. Critics are just media trouble-makers, according to Mr. Schaefer. Any changes at the top of the department will have to await Mr. Schaefer's retirement. But that doesn't mean something can't be done in the interim.

An election year is not usually the best time for a dispassionate examination of police effectiveness. There is too much temptation to grandstand, especially on a matter that strikes close to so emotional a political issue as crime control. Still, responsible legislators and candidates for office could start laying the groundwork for a professional appraisal of the state police early in the next administration.

Such a review, by a qualified group of outside experts, would reveal a lot of first-class law enforcement officers on the force. It might also disclose some structural or administrative weaknesses that could have contributed, out of public view, to the debacle on Baltimore Street. That's more critical to public safety than a sensational one-night stand for the cameras.

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