Transfer of major sparks anger Police commander shifted from Eastside because of death rate

Sistrunk sent downtown

Headquarters calls it a routine change, not a punishment

August 20, 1996|By Joan Jacobson and Richard Irwin | Joan Jacobson and Richard Irwin,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Joe Mathews contributed to this article.

The popular commander of the Baltimore Police Department's Eastern District has been removed because of the high homicide rate there, sparking anger from community leaders who defended him yesterday in a heated closed-door meeting with police and elected officials.

"This major has come down to my neighborhood and he's got a relationship with my children," said East Baltimore resident Elroy Christopher. "My children are saying, 'What are they doing to the major?' "

Maj. Odis L. Sistrunk Jr., 47, was quietly transferred to a downtown position last week, two years after being sent to Eastern District to bring down the area's high homicide and shooting rates. He has been replaced by Maj. Wendell M. France, 44, who was head of the Criminal Investigation Bureau, which oversees homicide and robbery.

Sistrunk seemed to have the full confidence of Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier as recently as three months ago, when the department plastered photographs of Sistrunk and other commanders on billboards around town.

The 6-foot-6-inch commander was pictured looking down on troubled Greenmount Avenue.

"New possibilities, new pride. Join us for a better, safer East Baltimore," the billboard declared.

But Col. Ronald Daniel, chief of the Police Department's Field Operations Bureau, said Sistrunk was transferred to Daniel's office because East Baltimore has the city's highest homicide rate.

The city has had 218 homicides so far this year, 47 from East Baltimore, according to police figures.

The citywide rate is ahead of the pace last year, when Baltimore had 325 homicides.

"It's time for a change," Daniel said.

Frazier would not comment yesterday on Sistrunk's transfer.

Police spokesman Robert W. Weinhold Jr. said, "This is not any type of punishment or discipline, but a routine personnel change."

Sistrunk will retain his title of major and his salary of more than $60,000 a year. Neither he nor France could be reached for comment.

The transfer comes at a time when the City Council has criticized Frazier for the city's high crime rates.

A contingent of council members and Fraternal Order of Police members will visit New York City today to review that city's "zero tolerance" stand against criminals.

Frazier is opposed to New York's method of cracking down on the smallest crimes.

But the head of the FOP said Sistrunk did a good job combating crime in the Eastern District and was only carrying out the directives of the commissioner.

"It's a complete surprise and far from a routine personnel change," said Officer Gary McLhinney, president of the FOP.

McLhinney said that Daniel's field operations office will have two majors and that "it wouldn't surprise me if the top of the police headquarters building toppled" from being top-heavy.

Community leaders expressed their outrage about the transfer when Democratic East Baltimore Del. Hattie N. Harrison hastily convened a meeting yesterday of police and mayoral officials and about 50 community representatives at Dunbar High School's Mayor's Station.

Although Harrison barred the media, reporters could hear raised voices from outside the meeting room's steel doors.

As they complained about the transfer, many people praised Sistrunk's work with the community and ridiculed Frazier for his decision.

"He started to make things happen," one man said of Sistrunk. "He started to clean out the corners. Why take him away?"

"He's doing something to help people in East Baltimore, especially black folks," said another unidentified man.

The Rev. Milton E. Williams, who heads the Community Association of Port Street, criticized Frazier for making the change "without any community input." Williams, who attended the meeting at Dunbar and spoke later to a reporter, said Frazier should have shown up for the meeting.

"Maj. Odis Sistrunk remains a motivating factor, a motivating person in East Baltimore," Williams said. "It was a miscalculation to replace him."

If Frazier replaced Sistrunk because of crime statistics, he said, "Commissioner Frazier should have instead responded to the statistics and made more resources available to the major."

Christopher, of the 900 block of N. Luzerne St., gave an impassioned speech about Sistrunk's dedication to the children of East Baltimore.

"Why don't you give the major help? This man's making a difference. He needs resources," Christopher said in a booming voice.

The children in his neighborhood "look at him not as the police but as a leader," Christopher said. Sistrunk gave residents "confidence to use their neighborhood, use their homes, take the locks off their doors."

After the meeting, Christopher and others said they were resigned to the change.

"They already made their decision to change majors, and we have no control over that. We're holding the commissioner and the new major accountable," Christopher said.

Elected officials at the meeting were not as upset as their constituents.

Democratic state Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, an ally of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, said Sistrunk was a hard worker, but "sometimes you burn out. I understand what the higher-ups are saying. We have to get crime down. I would like to see more blue lights flashing and open air drug markets attacked."

"One of the reasons [Sistrunk] is being penalized is because of the stats," said McFadden, noting the high crime rates in the area.

McFadden, who said he was not happy to learn of the transfer after the fact, said he spoke with Frazier on Sunday after hearing by chance of Sistrunk's transfer.

Harrison, also a Schmoke ally, said, "I was disappointed, but after listening to the explanation from the commissioner Sunday, I'm willing to accept it and work with Major France."

Schmoke's spokesman said the mayor was aware of the transfer but was attending a function in Washington yesterday and was unavailable for comment.

Pub Date: 8/20/96

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