Truce called in dispute over police

September 20, 1994|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Sun Staff Writer

Black and Jewish leaders came to a truce yesterday, ending a monthlong furor over the planned transfer of a district police commander and over questions of impartiality in two Northwest Baltimore communities that are often at odds.

The two sides met at the urging of Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier, who complained from the beginning of the dispute that rumors and misinformation were deepening the mistrust between black and Jewish residents.

Yesterday's meeting was seen as the first of a series of forums designed to help members of both communities work together to combat mutual fears of crime.

"We will get our hands dirty to deal with problems that are common to the two communities," said Arthur C. Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council.

"We feel we have an obligation to our community to improve life in Baltimore City," said Rodney Orange, president of the city's chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Highlights of the 2 1/2 -hour, closed-door meeting, participants said, included:

* Maj. Barry Powell, the commander of the Northwestern District whose transfer order sparked anger among black leaders and led to yesterday's forum, will remain on the job indefinitely. Mr. Frazier had postponed the transfer until the meeting could be held.

* Black leaders, including Park Heights residents and the city's NAACP, now agree that the Jewish community did not pressure the Police Department to remove Major Powell, as had been asserted last month.

* The Northwest Citizen's Patrol -- for the first time in its 11-year history -- will likely open its membership to all residents of the Upper Park Heights neighborhood. Currently, patrol members are Orthodox Jews.

* In a gesture to ease tensions, the patrol has asked Mr. Frazier to assign a black officer to the patrol.

Before the meeting began, Michael Johnson of the Northwest Baltimore Corp., which helped set up the session, said participants were "not looking for a love fest. We are just looking for a basic understanding."

While precise details of yesterday's debate were not disclosed, large sheets of paper attached to the meeting room walls offered glimpse of some of the ideas discussed.

One said: "Work things out positively."

Another read: "Need to have open, honest relationship."

And another: "To get a reason or explanation why Major Powell was removed."

Mr. Frazier's order to transfer Powell was part of sweeping changes he was making in his command staff.

Those changes triggered complaints from the city branch of the NAACP because three of the commanders he transferred to administrative posts were black.

Black leaders charged that a "small segment" of the Jewish community pressured the Police Department for the major's removal.

Supporters of Major Powell said the 31-year veteran had been ousted because he removed one of two officers assigned to the Northwest Citizens Patrol, arguing the officer was needed in a predominantly black neighborhood with a substantial crime problem.

Major Powell, in interviews and in a public speech before supporters last month, said some Jewish leaders, particularly Rusty White, the head of the Northwest Citizens Patrol, demanded his ouster in secret letters to Mr. Frazier.

Yesterday, the commissioner said Major Powell will stay at the Northwestern District indefinitely. "I don't have any intention of nTC moving him in the near future," said Mr. Frazier, explaining he is impressed with the support coming from the community.

The NAACP's Mr. Orange said the earlier complaints critical of Major Powell's transfer were based on "old information."

He and other leaders are now satisfied that Jewish leaders played no part in Mr. Frazier's decision, he said.

For her part, Jean Yarborough, a Park Heights neighborhood leader who led the fight for Major Powell, said: "We are delighted to have him back."

In another conciliatory move, Mr. Abramson of the Baltimore Jewish Council said the Northwest Citizen's Patrol will most likely open its membership to include people who are not Orthodox Jews.

Last month, several black city leaders, notably Del. Tony E. Fulton, a District 40 Democrat, complained that tax money was being spent to fund at least one police officer to work with a group that excludes members based on religion.

Mr. Frazier has asked the city attorney to write an opinion on whether the assignment is legal, but the commissioner said it would be "a moot point if the patrol opens up its membership."

Mr. White, who heads the patrol, left the meeting early for a prior appointment and could not be reached for comment later.

Mr. Abramson, at a news conference held after the forum ended, said that Mr. White "is committed to opening up" the patrol."

"There was a meeting with the Northwest Citizen's Patrol a couple of years ago to discuss this issue," Mr. Abramson said. "They have recognized that the time has come to make this kind of positive step in the community."

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