Officers' Hopes Turn to Anger in Just 6 Months

August 21, 1994|By DAVID SIMON

The lead role was played, appropriately enough, by a city homicide detective, a storied veteran of the crimes against persons section who donned a silver wig and a white dress shirt bedecked with gold stars and trim. Two other detectives marked his entrance onstage with bright beams from departmental-issue flashlights.

"Ladies and gentlemen," declared the master of ceremonies, a veteran lieutenant. "It's . . . it's . . ." The crowd of more than two hundred detectives, prosecutors and federal agents could no longer contain itself. The catering hall began to howl at the sight of a mock police commissioner, bathed in the glow, appearing as he often does on the local news channels. " . . . IT'S TV TOM . . . LIVE AND IN PERSON."

The costumed detective marched to the lectern and faced down the crowd. Though no introductions were really necessary, the master of ceremonies hastily explained that Baltimore Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier had been kind enough to drop in at this, the retirement party for the homicide unit's Detective Sgt. Gary Childs. The mock commissioner took in this introduction with a diffidence that bordered on contempt.

"Gary who?" he asked finally.

The crowd roared.

All in good fun, you might say, and to an extent, you'd be right. It was a retirement party, after all, and one of the things you do at retirement parties is make fun of the bosses. Parody has always been an after-hours prerogative of labor.

But the ribbing of Baltimore's police commissioner did not end with that one performance at this month's retirement party for Sergeant Childs. It came up time and again -- in the speeches, in some of the gag gifts, in the display of comic awards and plaques -- until anti-Frazier sentiment could fairly be considered a theme of the evening.

More to the point, such criticism is being heard from more than just a few disgruntled detectives or the occasional mid-level commander victimized by the purges of the new regime. In radio cars and station houses throughout the city, ill words are now spoken routinely and with great conviction about a man who only six months ago was being universally hailed as a savior for a troubled police department.

Some of that criticism could hardly be avoided; change always makes for turbulence and Mr. Frazier arrived from California with a clear mandate for change. But much of the ire against the new commissioner is not the result of major policy shifts or new policing visions, but from smaller, more idiosyncratic issues that nonetheless affect rank-and-file morale.

"He's got his criminal investigations division up in arms because of the idea of a rotation policy," says one veteran lieutenant. "And he's got the people in patrol down on him because it seems that no matter what the facts of any controversial incident, he won't back his people. It's as simple as that."

It is indeed. Specifically, the department's 190-officer detective bureau is at odds with Mr. Frazier over his stated goal of rotating investigators to other assignments on a routine basis. Mr. Frazier has said such a policy will open up new opportunities to younger officers and minorities, while assuring that veteran officers learn a variety of tasks.

Detectives say such a policy will reduce the experience level in critical investigative units and contribute to the continuing exodus of experienced officers from the department, impairing the agency's ability to solve and deter major crimes.

In the patrol division, the 1,800-officer backbone of the agency, Mr. Frazier is now widely mistrusted among officers for failing to offer any overt show of support for any of the officers involved in a string of controversial use-of-force incidents.

Defenders of the police commissioner, however, argue that he is trying to remain impartial pending the outcome of investigations into the use of excessive force, and further, that Mr. Frazier inherited a police agency that too often resorted to brutality.

"We're one ugly incident away from a riot," says one high-ranking commander. "I think [Mr. Frazier] understands that if we don't rein in some of these people, we're looking at real trouble down the road."

It's true enough that any attempt to combat brutality was bound to lose Mr. Frazier some support among patrol officers accustomed to years of lax supervision. And it's true as well that the criticism by downtown detectives is, in part, a function of self-interest: Most veteran investigators are not exactly delighted the prospect of going back into a radio car and chasing calls.

But many within the department feel that in dealing with both issues, Mr. Frazier's pursuit of his goals needlessly damaged his relations with the troops. And when opportunities to reassure the troops were presented to him, those critics say, Mr. Frazier passed.

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