Stop micromanaging the police

August 18, 1994

When Thomas C. Frazier took over the Baltimore City police department in January, he was widely seen as having a mandate for shaking up the lethargic and undirected force.

He quickly instituted new staffing policies and announced that officers could expect to be rotated regularly. He started from the top, where a number of senior officers chose to retire instead. Then the chief moved on to the district commanders.

This kind of wholesale shake-up has introduced a great deal of mobility to a long-stagnant department structure. It has also angered many entrenched time-servers and their networks of cronies. The department continues to lose experienced people. But it has also lost some stellar performers who find it easier to deal with new job prospects than with the kind of uncertainty over future assignments that the Frazier changes have brought about.

The bottom line is this: Mr. Frazier, who just eight months ago was welcomed by nearly everyone in the community as a long-needed reformer, now has a growing number of critics in the department. And those critics are attempting to build alliances of convenience with critical outside power elements, be they labor unions or community groups. These parties know that Mr. Frazier does not only preach change, he also practices it.

All this could be expected. What could not be anticipated was the kind of flap that recently developed over the commissioner's decision to reassign Maj. Barry Powell from the Northwestern District. That order turned into an ugly duel among racially divided community groups. In the end, the mayor intervened and Mr. Frazier rescinded the transfer decision.

Major Powell, who successfully rallied friendly community groups to his defense, may feel cocky these days but he hardly has reason to. Unless the rules of paramilitary organizations have been revolutionized, he has only won a skirmish, not the war. Commissioner Frazier is still the boss and one of these days Major Powell will find himself saluting. Examples of public insubordination cannot be tolerated in organizations that are based on strict adherence to discipline and rank.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke clearly is Mr. Frazier's superior. But the mayor needs to resist his urge to micromanage, unless he wants to sow the seeds of further discord in the department. Commissioner Frazier was brought here to do a job. He may not be perfect, but he has made great progress. Let's give him time -- and a free hand -- to complete the reorganization.

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