Is Frazier's Honeymoon Ending?

August 20, 1994

Within his department, Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier is beginning to get mixed reviews after eight months on the job.

There is lingering unhappiness about his decision to shake up the force through a rotation policy. There is grumbling that the commissioner does not stand up for his officers in potentially explosive controversies. Some suspect the commissioner may not be able to resist political pressures.

That latter verdict has arisen from an unhappy tangle of events in Northwestern District, where the local commander, egged on by racially divided community groups, managed to negate Commissioner Frazier's efforts to transfer him. In doing so, Maj. Barry Powell achieved a Pyrrhic victory. In the highly charged controversy, he exhibited such public insubordination he set himself up for an ultimate come-down. A belated apology will not alter this reality. But that is Major Powell's problem.

Mr. Frazier was brought to Baltimore to do a job -- to reorganize and re-energize an ineffective and demoralized police department. He believes one of the key problems is too little power at the district level; he has replaced all but two local commanders. Many were officers who had community support. Despite their popularity, they were seemingly ineffective in combating crime, particularly the spread of drug trafficking.

This, in brief, is Major Powell's problem as well. He may be personally popular but his district is plagued by epidemic drug and gun violence problems. If they cannot be curbed, the commander has to take personal responsibility for the failure. Being a nice guy goes only so far.

Baltimore's police department has sometimes been criticized for being too much of a paramilitary organization. Since coming here, Commissioner Frazier has intentionally emphasized that structure and style. It is not by accident that he, unlike his predecessors, wears a uniform. The stars on his shoulder identify him as the boss, whose orders are to be taken seriously. This is how it should be.

A city which is experiencing a serious crisis of confidence cannot tolerate any challenge or dilution of the commissioner's authority unless it wants to doom its police department to indecision and anarchy. That goes for the mayor, too. Trying to micromanage the police department from City Hall will render it rudderless and encourage dissension in the ranks.

Mr. Frazier has a tough job. Politicians should not make it impossible.

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