Frazier has backers, critics As 1/3 of police union seeks chief's ouster, residents' views vary

February 06, 1997|By Peter Hermann and Jason LaCanfora | Peter Hermann and Jason LaCanfora,SUN STAFF

Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier has now earned the rank of embattled.

The articulate outsider from California -- brought in three years ago to fix a Baltimore department frustrated by crime and mismanagement -- has endured months of turmoil over how he plans to reduce violence and run the department.

Now, more than one-third of the 3,200-member force wants him to resign, charging he has failed to put forth a cohesive plan to police a crime-weary city and that his internal policies have demoralized the troops.

The vote solicited by the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, in which 1,218 officers called for Frazier's ouster, has triggered a war of rhetoric inside the headquarters building, where cliques are closely watching how the situation unfolds.

Community opinions varied yesterday. Some ministers were willing to give Frazier more time. A Butchers Hill resident said the chief's time is up. A city councilman worried that Frazier is starting to bend to political influence.

"It's a rough time to be a police commissioner in any city," said the Rev. Frank M. Reid III, pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. "The question is, has he been given enough time to bring things in order? There is no quick solution to these problems, and scapegoating and playing politics will not help this issue."

Frazier's detractors complain that the chief has been slow to deal with problems of race, has realigned his command staff in response to critical media stories and is more concerned with FTC public relations than fighting crime.

His supporters say the chief has ended a good-old-boy network in which officers with connections were promoted and protected.

"This is the first time in my years at this Police Department that commanders have been held accountable," said one experienced officer. "Before Frazier, they sat on their duffs and the political system protected them."

Frazier was out of town yesterday and unavailable for comment. He issued a statement Tuesday saying he wasn't surprised by the vote and blamed it on frustrations over a labor contract that was settled last month.

But Officer Gary McLhinney, the union president, said the opinions expressed by officers on a comments portion of the vote cards indicate dissatisfaction goes to the heart of how to fight crime.

But some officers say the union doesn't speak for them. Sgt. Mark E. Howe wrote a letter to McLhinney last month, which he showed to The Sun. He defended Frazier and saying maybe the union head should be replaced.

"It is not his fault. I feel that if you would work with Commissioner Frazier instead of against him, a lot more would be accomplished," Howe wrote.

Frazier inherited a department in crisis. Sworn in as a Sun series on the department criticized how the drug war was fought and questioned whether officers cared about making arrests, he promised immediate action.

He shook up and streamlined his command staff, aggressively went after drug dealers on Greenmount Avenue and set up a squad of officers who for the first time investigated nonfatal shootings with the same zeal as homicides.

But his decision to seize guns instead of targeting drug addicts and his reluctance to implement so-called zero-tolerance policing widely credited with bringing down crime in New York -- have fostered considerable debate. Despite a 9 percent overall crime drop last year, the city's stable homicide rate continues to dog the administration.

Frazier has said zero-tolerance can't work without substantial changes in the criminal justice system and he has criticized judges and prosecutors for dropping criminal cases.

The commissioner has said privately he feels alone in speaking out for criminal justice reforms and is tired of being blamed for the violence that has become one of the most politically charged issues in Baltimore. But residents hold him accountable.

"If [the police officers] judge he is not doing his job -- and let's face it, crime has never been worse -- then we need a replacement," said Dolores Barnes, president of Concerned Citizens for a Better Brooklyn.

But the Rev. Melvin B. Tuggle II, president of Clergy United for the Renewal of East Baltimore, supported Frazier, saying he has personally addressed community concerns in some of the most blighted areas of the city. "He hasn't had the opportunity to carry out his plan," Tuggle said.

City Councilman Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr. said Frazier managed to stay above the political fray during his first years in office.

"Now he's starting to bend to administrators, churches, and other groups," he said. "If he does that, we're back to the old way the Police Department was run. I hope it doesn't come to that."

District police commanders interviewed yesterday defended Frazier, saying he has provided new equipment, better staffing and more autonomy for supervisors to combat crime.

"I know there's a lot of frustration out there," said Maj. Gary Lembach, Southwestern District commander. "You can't put all that on Frazier's shoulders."

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