Frazier shifts priority to guns Baltimore police directed to focus less on small drug busts

January 25, 1996|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Setting new priorities for officers on the street, Baltimore's police commissioner is directing them to concentrate on seizing guns and to de-emphasize arrests for possessing small quantities of drugs.

Carefully wording his statements to assure residents that street dealers will still be targeted, Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier said it is not worth an officer's time to look for people carrying a few small bags of cocaine or heroin.

"We think that guns and gun violence is where we should focus our energy, not drugs and drug arrests," Mr. Frazier said in an interview, elaborating on a five-page letter being sent this week to the department's 3,100 police officers.

"Our emphasis is going away from the possession cases because, frankly, it takes [offi-cers] off their post for half of a shift and nothing is going to happen anyway."

The commissioner's plan is endorsed by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. Law enforcement experts are praising Mr. Frazier as gutsy for writing into policy the futility of how the drug war is sometimes fought.

However, a drug treatment expert from Columbia University in ++ New York says that the plan could lead to more crime and drugs on Baltimore's streets.

Mr. Frazier, in his letter outlining goals for 1996, said that "too much of our officers' time is spent making low-level drug arrests. Obviously, an officer on the street is more effective in maintaining order and denying the opportunity for violence than an officer spending hours off the beat in a booking facility."

"This is not to say that drug distribution organizations, large and small, are not targeted," the letter said. "They certainly are. It is to say that street addicts with small amounts of narcotics are not TC an enforcement priority."

The commissioner is issuing new rules for officers who encounter drug suspects. If officers have probable cause to search a group at a corner, for example, they are to only pat down the outside of the suspects' clothing or use a hand-held metal detector. The idea is to look for a gun, not the drugs.

"I don't want my officers having their hands in [suspects'] pockets," Mr. Frazier said. "I want them to pat search If I have a choice between simple possession and a gun, we're taking the gun."

The commissioner's letter lists five goals for 1996 to make Baltimore safer. In addition to emphasizing gun seizures and gun crimes, he plans to make parks safer, put more officers on the street, enlarge the successful Police Athletic Leagues and enlist up to 10,000 block representatives who can organize neighborhood cleanups and help report crime.

Mayor Schmoke, who has called for a national debate on drug decriminalization, said Mr. Frazier's plan "is right on target."

The mayor's spokesman, Clinton R. Coleman, said the new policy is not de facto decriminalization, but is "clearly a recognition by the commissioner that you can't arrest your way out of this drug problem. What impacts on the quality of life in this city is not people taking drugs, but the violence associated with the drug trade."

But Dr. Herbert Kleber, a drug treatment expert at Columbia University and a noted opponent of easing back on drug laws, said that Mr. Frazier is taking an opposite approach to that of New York and Houston, which have zero-tolerance policies toward crime.

"This is flying in the face of what we learned in those cities," Dr. Kleber said. "They went after the small-time dealers and the quality of life issues and saw crime really decrease."

Mr. Frazier is driven in part by the state's attorney's office, which recently doubled the amount of drugs it takes to charge a suspect with felony distribution. Anything under 30 bags of heroine or 30 rocks of crack cocaine is prosecuted as misdemeanor possession.

That, coupled with Mr. Frazier's policy, Dr. Kleber said, will encourage more crime and more drugs. "He is creating a disregard for the law. Eventually, he is going to have to reconsider, and unfortunately, the citizens of Baltimore will have to suffer until that happens."

David G. Walchak, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, called Mr. Frazier "professionally brave" and said the drug policy is difficult to explain to the public.

Mr. Walchak, who heads the 70-member Concord, N.H., Police Department, said that every chief "has to formulate a plan as to how effectively he can police his community." He said it is unfortunate that certain crimes must be ignored, "but it seems to that Chief Frazier is taking a logical approach to the violence problem."

Mr. Frazier admitted that publicly outlining his strategies is a risk, but said people "expect results."

"We think they're reasonable. We think they're rational. We think they're practical. We think they're attainable. We're happy to accept the responsibility to get these things done," he said.

The plan is being praised by the city police union president, who is often critical of Mr. Frazier, and by a national expert on police policy.

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