Baltimore law enforcement is study in black and white

December 15, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

"WHAT WE HAVE here," declared Thomas C. Frazier, ducking another broadside fired in his direction, "is a snapshot. A process is under way. At this particular moment, this is how the snapshot of the command structure looks, but a few months down the road "

Thus, at week's end, in the dry language of the bureaucrat, did the police commissioner of Baltimore address the great emotional issue of our time, which is race, and how it has landed on his desk with a thud in the aftermath of a highly publicized command restructuring which seemed to divide his top officers by skin color.

Frazier was calling from his car phone as he headed toward Washington. He said he'd be back to Baltimore later. In the current atmosphere, maybe he should take a long weekend out of town and hope that the air around here clears.

He's a man of decent intentions in a sensitive and unforgiving business. Informed of racial edginess in his department, and feeling the various political pressures of his time, he moves to mollify everyone, officers and politicians and citizens who rely on the even-handedness of his force. But he creates such racially divided lines of authority that he angers people across the spectrum.

A snapshot, he calls it. Part of a process, which is ever changing. But the newest snapshot shows this: a black man, Col. Ronald L. Daniel, as chief of the Field Operations Bureau, the largest command on the force, and Daniel sharing the job with Col. John E. Gavrilis, who is white.

The black Colonel Daniel is assigned to oversee all three black district commanders (and two whites); the white Colonel Gavrilis will oversee four white commanders. Thus, a message is sent to the citizens of Baltimore: You worried that law enforcement was racially polarized before? Now we're handing you new fuel for your suspicions.

"I'm sensitive to that," Frazier said. "It was a topic of discussion. But, in a matter of months, it will change. Some district commanders will be rotated. This is at the absolute top of my list of sensitivities."

Should any of this matter to the citizens of Baltimore? Not particularly, any more than the racial breakdown of the Department of Public Works should matter. With the police, what counts is crime, and the fear of it, and the perception that they're coping with it. Who cares about an officer's color? But, in the current context, exploited by various politicians, passed on to the various communities, race is the ever-constant factor, articulated or not.

"I stay out of the political process," Frazier said, while acknowledging he spoke to the mayor about the command shake-up. "I have to be politically sensitive without being political. We want equity, and we want the perception of equity."

At City Hall, the mayor of all Baltimore, Kurt L. Schmoke, when asked about the department's new racial divide, told The Sun's Peter Hermann, "I raised with [Frazier] that there might be a perception problem."

Might? Eyebrows are raised across the city. Suddenly, this mayor who ran the most racially manipulative local mayoral campaign of the post-civil rights era worries about a "perception" problem? The perception given by Schmoke -- in his last campaign, and by some of those who still run his various municipal departments as well as his political life with a calculated divisiveness -- is that choosing up sides by race is now part of the game plan.

When Frazier took the job, Schmoke assured him, "You don't do tTC politics; I don't do police administration." That's nice, in theory. In reality, everyone does politics, and race has become the driving force in so many areas that divide us, and make us suspect each other, and the police divide is one more consideration to add to the list.

Take the public schools, and the latest miserable news. So many white parents have pulled out their kids that the system is now almost 85 percent black. Those in charge of the schools -- on North Avenue, and at City Hall -- have now presided over an academic catastrophe, whose evidence we saw last week when the Maryland State Department of Education handed out its annual report card.

Across the state, 19 out of 24 school districts improved their performance. Schools statewide improved in 15 of 18 subject areas. There were improvements in attendance and dropout figures. And, statewide, about 40 percent of the kids passed the test.

In the city of Baltimore, 13.5 percent passed.

As you digest that figure, do the simple math, which says 86.5 percent of these kids are now running behind the pack, in danger of the kinds of failures met by a couple of generations of those in city schools.

And yet it took a highly publicized court settlement a few weeks ago to put change into motion, in a fight that had all kinds of racial overtones, as black politicians and administrators hinted at whites interested only in extending their own power base, and we failed to hear the public outcry of parents declaring, "Get past this racial business; I just want my child educated." Why no outcry? Because their own political leaders, white and black, have sent the message about racial suspiciousness, which they use for their own needs, and it has become part of everyone's mind-set.

And now this business with the Police Department inadvertently heightens everyone's edginess all over again.

Pub Date: 12/15/96

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.