Laurels, but no time to rest on them

February 04, 1996|By Sara Engram

AS HE BEGINS his third year on the job, Baltimore Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier can cite important accomplishments.

He has moved officers from desk jobs to the streets, staged high-profile drug raids, cut out three layers in a bloated administrative structure, stemmed an alarming attrition rate as fewer cops leave for surrounding jurisdictions and given the community strong leadership in the fight against crime.

And despite criticism that his policy of requiring officers to rotate through various jobs would deprive the police department of highly skilled homicide detectives, he can brag that the criminal-investigations bureau is now clearing a higher percentage of cases.

Not bad. But where police work is concerned, only a fool would rest on his laurels -- or rest at all.

Last month, Mr. Frazier issued a five-page letter to all members of his department, marching orders for the new year. The letter sets out priorities -- a wise move in a city where success depends on doing more with less, rather than leaning on excuses and waiting for a windfall.

But there's risk as well. Putting emphasis on some problems can create the impression that others are getting short shrift.

That's the case with the commissioner's focus on guns and gun-related crimes at the expense of arresting low-level drug users. Mr. Frazier strongly defends the policy against critics who say the only effective stance against drug abuse is zero tolerance.

''You can only have zero tolerance when you're there'' on the street, he says. ''You have total tolerance while you're spending four hours booking a suspect.''

When those suspects are among the city's 50,000 addicts and when an overcrowded criminal-justice system is likely to release them within hours, why tie up half an officer's shift while dealers ,, continue business as usual?

It's a compelling question. Even so, it's disturbing to many people to think that the police would take anything less than an approach that advertises zero tolerance, all the time.

But would those people want to pay the huge costs of vastly expanding the police department, the court system, the prisons, jails and treatment programs to deal with every drug offender in town?

Welcome to the dilemmas of policing a drug-drenched, gun-infested city in 1996.

To take back public places

The good news is that these dilemmas don't have to engender hopelessness. It is possible to fight crime in Baltimore, to take back public spaces, to make streets and neighborhoods safer.

It's a constant battle and always will be. That's why it's important to create momentum, to demonstrate determination and leadership and to set priorities.

If the police department is going to rank unarmed, small-time users below gun-carrying dealers in choosing how to use its resources -- including its officers' time -- it is reassuring that it is doing this as part of a concerted plan. Mr. Frazier has other priorities, and he is as eager to tout them as he is bold in setting them.

He promises to put another 184 officers in direct crime-fighting -- duties, on top of 159 officers added in 1995. This will be done in part by cracking down on abuse of sick leave. The average number of sick days in the department is 15 per year. But because 56 percent of officers take none at all, the other 44 percent are taking at least twice that average number -- equivalent to some six weeks of work.

Abuse of sick leave and medical disability is no longer tolerated. The commissioner sees this as an issue of integrity -- and since integrity is vital to a police department, he vows to prosecute violators. Heads of other public agencies -- and not just in Baltimore -- could take a lesson from that refreshing, no-nonsense attitude.

He promises to retake public spaces in a manner similar to the initiative that is winning accolades in New York. A new street-crimes unit, which begins operation this month, is charged with thwarting everything from muggings to aggressive panhandling.

The commissioner promises a concerted effort to enlist neighborhoods in fighting crime -- and in making it easier for them to access the city services they need to combat blight and other factors in an area's decline.

And he promises to expand Police Athletic Leagues, the after-school programs which are already thriving in some areas of the city. Those programs are proof, if any is needed, that city kids are hungry for a safe place to go and a role model to emulate.

This police commissioner is full of plans. But after two years on the job, he is proving he can make good on a promise. He gets a lot of credit for that. So does the mayor who, in this case, proved he can pick a strong, capable leader and give him room to succeed.

Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

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