October 02, 1994|By Michael James and Peter Hermann

In January, Thomas C. Frazier took over the 2,900-member Baltimore Police Department, an agency dogged by brutality complaints, petty corruption, and internal strife fueled by racial friction.

The city was reeling from its second-straight record-setting year for homicides.

Some 353 people were slain in Baltimore in 1993 -- up from 335 the year before -- as drug dealers brazenly took over neighborhoods and police morale plummeted under Commissioner Edward V. Woods.

Frustrated by the carnage, politicians and community leaders turned up the heat on Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Mr. Woods.

In August 1993, Mr. Woods announced his retirement. While the mayor said that he had not asked the commissioner to step aside, he also made no effort to keep his embattled commissioner.

Mr. Woods' critics had questioned his management skills and his ability to assure the public that the city's streets were safe.

Mr. Frazier is the antithesis of his predecessor. Confident but not brash, he is equally adept at fielding questions from harried reporters or searching for middle ground with angry community activists.

He honed his management skills while serving as a deputy chief in the San Jose, Calif., Police Department under Joe McNamara, widely renowned as one of the nation's most innovative chiefs.

Shortly after his arrival here, Mr. Frazier ordered police raids in drug-infested neighborhoods that were followed by a large-scale cleanup effort by hundreds of sanitation workers.

Whole neighborhoods were liberated from the clutches of drug dealers, and the commissioner's star shone brightly.

But his proposed rotation policy has generated much unrest and bitterness within the department. Under the plan, officers -- including entrenched veterans -- would be rotated to different jobs.

At a going-away party for Gary Childs, a well-respected homicide detective, the commissioner was ridiculed by disgruntled officers who dubbed him "TV Tom," because he appears on the television news so frequently.

He has also been criticized by the Fraternal Order of Police for failing to defend officers involved in cases of alleged police brutality.

In July, Mr. Frazier angered the FOP when he announced that he was supporting a federal civil rights probe into death of Jesse Chapman, a West Baltimore man found dead in the back of a police van.

A grand jury declined to indict the arresting officers after an autopsy report revealed that Mr. Chapman died from a cocaine-induced asthma attack -- not a beating by police, as alleged by neighborhood residents.

The commissioner created more controversy when, faced with complaints from black leaders, he changed his mind on transferring Maj. Barry Powell out of his command at the Northwestern Police District.

Mr. Frazier retracted his orders after meeting with a contingent of residents and leaders from Park Heights and other nearby neighborhoods.

The decision drew complaints from some officers who charged Mr. Frazier with bowing to community pressure.

In a recent interview with Sun reporters Michael James and Peter Hermann, he spoke of his effort to go after criminals while reshaping the department.

'I Take Discipline Seriously'

Q: Is there any indication that the homicide epidemic is subsiding?

A: I'm very encouraged by the crime stats. We had 353 murders last year. We're about 40 under that at this point. I'm encouraged by that number. That's about an 18 percent decrease.

Q: Do you think you are partly responsible for the drop in murders?

A: I think to a certain extent the way we restructured drug enforcement is responsible for that. The homicides on the street are very much drug-related. They are street robberies where addicts rob the dealer for either drugs or money.

If we can end the year in the vicinity of 290 or 300 [homicides], although that's an incredible high number, it's a significant improvement. I think as we better deal with open air drug markets, we can have a positive effect on the murder rate.

Q: The rotation issue hasn't gone over well in the Criminal Investigation Division, especially homicide. Where does the rotation policy stand now? Has it been implemented?

A: It hasn't been implemented. It is part of the labor contract that is up for a vote next week. I think that contract language deals equitably with allowing senior officers to remain for a period of time and still provide opportunity for younger officers to gain experience.

I need well-rounded, well-groomed, well-qualified leadership in this Police Department. And as I reviewed the resumes of promotional candidates, it absolutely leaps out at me the lack of breadth of job skills that the promotional candidates have.

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