Frazier rejects gun squad

March 09, 1995|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Sun Staff Writer

Baltimore's police commissioner rejected yesterday the state attorney general's call for a special squad of officers to seize illegal firearms, saying a task force formed three years ago already does the job.

Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier said he will work with Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. to get federal funds to expand and perhaps create a second Violent Crimes Task Force. He also said he would consult with Mr. Curran on legal issues arising from aggressive police seizures of guns.

But the president of the police officers union blasted Mr. Frazier for rejecting the proposal for special gun squads.

"No guts," Officer Gary McLhinney said, accusing city officials of being scared by the constitutional issues raised by such a program. "This is an innovative plan that without a doubt would make the streets of Baltimore safer. . . . I don't see why we're not doing it."

The clamor for sweeping firearms from city streets comes amid growing concern about gun-related violence. Last year, Baltimore police seized 2,891 handguns, 3,481 rifles and 120 assault-style weapons; Mr. Frazier said 600 more guns were seized in 1994 than in the previous year.

The gun squad program, developed by a University of Maryland professor, is being used by police departments in Kansas City, Mo., and Indianapolis. In one Kansas City neighborhood, the experimental program is being credited with reducing gun-related crime by 50 percent.

Officers assigned to the squads were freed from answering routine service calls, and instead sought out illegal activity that would give them authority to conduct a search. Typically, they targeted motorists violating traffic laws or youths breaking curfew.

The searches have raised concerns from the American Civil Liberties Union and civil rights activists, who worry that law-abiding citizens could be harassed. Mr. Curran said his office is willing to assist the police department in determining when an officer can conduct a legal search.

"It's going to take a concentrated effort in a given crime area by highly skilled officers whose only job is to get guns off the street," Mr. Curran said. "It could indeed, in the wrong circumstances, lead to someone thinking they are being improperly stopped. That won't happen ever, in my opinion, if you have the best officers doing it."

Emerging from an hourlong meeting with the city's police chief, Mr. Curran said he will continue to push the gun-seizure program for Baltimore and Prince George's County. Baltimore police, he said, are "ahead of the curve" on taking guns from the streets.

Mr. Curran said he met with Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry last week, but he said officials there won't make any commitments until a new police chief is hired.

Officer McLhinney, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, said officers should use any legal means to confiscate illegal firearms.

"If there is a legitimate reason to get in someone's pants to see if there is a gun, then we should be doing it," he said. "The law-abiding citizen has nothing to fear."

Officer McLhinney said that officers working under the Kansas City program only target people carrying guns, unlike Baltimore's Violent Crimes Task Force, which often is involved in lengthy undercover drug operations.

Former Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward V. Woods established the Violent Crimes Task Force in 1992 after community leaders criticized the city's response to the growing TTC crime problem.

The 45-member task force, which targets the most violent drug offenders, has investigated several large-scale drug organizations -- leading to raids by hundreds of officers in several city neighborhoods. Since the task force was created, its members have made more than 3,000 arrests and recovered 450 guns.

Lt. John Sieracki, head of the task force, said that as a "direct result of our enforcement efforts," shootings in Baltimore dropped from 2,500 in 1993 to 1,600 in 1994. "It shows what we're doing works."

Drugs and guns are tied together, he added. "We know the violence stems around the drug trade. Therefore, we do a lot of drug work."

Mr. Frazier said he doesn't see much difference between the Kansas City program and what Baltimore is doing. "We have said from the beginning, that we are going to decrease our emphasis on possession of narcotics arrests and increase our emphasis on gun arrests."

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