Equal discipline promised for police Black, white officers treated differently, some say

August 15, 1996|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Responding to complaints that black Baltimore police officers are treated more harshly than their white colleagues when charged with misconduct, the city's police chief is vowing to make changes to ensure "equal discipline for equal infractions."

Last week, members of the City Council and several current and former black officers accused Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier of tolerating a double-standard in how black and white officers are disciplined.

Yesterday, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke agreed that the department has a problem and put Frazier on notice that he needs to do more -- and do it quickly.

"It has not been dealt with as good as it should be," the mayor said. "But I am convinced that the commissioner is working on solutions so it will not be a problem in the future. I think there is a problem over there, but it's one that can be solved."

In a 90-minute interview Tuesday, Frazier said he will cooperate with a City Hall probe into why black officers are far more likely than white members to be fired or severely disciplined, in many cases for committing similar offenses.

"The key is that discrimination will not be tolerated in any form," Frazier said, responding for the first time to harsh criticism leveled at him at a council hearing last week.

The commissioner said he already has instituted many reforms, including increasing the number of black officers who investigate misconduct, and plans to do more to assure his department that discrimination is not acceptable.

At the council hearing, several current and former officers -- some fired for misconduct -- testified that white officers facing similar charges were only reprimanded.

The hearing was prompted by a report by former Officer Donald Reid, who found that of the 139 officers fired since 1985, 99 were black and 37 were white. Blacks make up 35 percent of the 3,100-member department.

Reid's lengthy report circulated in the department before Frazier was hired in 1994. Three years ago, he wrote to then-Commissioner Edward V. Woods and complained that nothing was being done.

Yesterday, Reid said that once again his complaints are being ignored. He charged that Frazier is taking credit for reforms instituted by his predecessor and said Frazier and Schmoke knew of the problems two years ago. Reid said a higher percentage of blacks has been fired under their administration than in the previous decade.

Frazier "has simply not cared about the problem since day one," Reid said. "He had ample time to resolve the problem."

Councilman Martin O'Malley, who heads the investigations committee, said he wants Frazier and other police commanders to attend a second hearing. They were not invited to testify at the one last week.

"I just want a remedy," O'Malley said. "I'd like to pinpoint where the problem is. I think the commissioner should come over and let us know what is going on."

Frazier asserted that he is planning a number of public and private ways to get his message of reform across to his department and to the public:

He will meet with members of the black community to assure them he is serious about ending the disparities.

A forum will be scheduled so he can address every sergeant and lieutenant and explain new rules designed to make punishment more uniform.

Officers will undergo sensitivity training, starting in January.

He has written a letter -- which will be published on the front page of the department's newsletter in two weeks -- to tell officers that discrimination will not be tolerated.

Frazier said he reviewed Reid's report when he first arrived in Baltimore and said, "It has caused a number of things to happen." But he noted the statistics span four previous commissioners, and that he has reduced a five-year backlog of unresolved disciplinary cases to 18 months.

The chief said he has increased black representation in the 37-member unit responsible for keeping officers in line. The department has 19 black investigators, including five black sergeants and one black lieutenant.

What Reid's report doesn't address, Frazier said, is how officers get into the disciplinary process in the first place, and what happens to them long before their case gets to investigators at police headquarters.

Sergeants and other supervisors often have had wide discretion, leading to abuse, with some infractions dealt with differently at different station houses, according to Frazier. To make the system more uniform, Frazier has limited the discretion of sergeants.

Frazier also has increased the number of black sergeants, hoping more minorities in supervisory positions will limit discrimination complaints. In January 1994, 59 of the 327 sergeants were black. Now, there are 72 black sergeants.

The commissioner said that efforts to increase the number of black police officers in recent years -- from 31 to 35 percent of the force since 1994 -- have led to a disproportionate number of African-Americans in patrol, where officers start their careers and are more likely to encounter the disciplinary process.

Frazier said that when department members with 20 or more years on the force -- many of them white males -- get into trouble, they can simply retire before their disciplinary hearing. Those numbers are not included in Reid's termination statistics.

Another change Frazier made was in how administrative disciplinary hearings are conducted. When black officers go before a trial board, Frazier said, he has ordered that two of the three hearing officers be black.

And the panel members deciding officers' fates are chosen by Col. Ronald L. Daniel and Maj. Victor Gregory, two black commanders.

Pub Date: 8/15/96

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