Police and race issue: More questions raised City Council hearing on ending disparity creates discord

March 08, 1997|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

An attempt by City Council members to end racial disparity in the Baltimore Police Department has ended in discord, overshadowing solutions and raising new questions about how the department is dealing with the explosive issue.

Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier pleased his critics at a City Council hearing Thursday by presenting clear goals to defuse allegations that black officers are more likely to be fired or disciplined than their white colleagues.

"It's a messy issue. It's an ugly issue," said Councilman Martin O'Malley, chairman of the Legislative Investigations Committee

that held the hearing and an ardent critic of Frazier's. "It's an issue that is very difficult to discuss openly without discord. But it's more harmful left unaddressed."

Although O'Malley praised Frazier's reforms, he questioned the commissioner on several fronts, forcing department officials to make embarrassing admissions -- among several revelations at the hearing:

Frazier acknowledged that an investigation is under way of a top police commander accused of releasing crime statistics to a City Council member in violation of a new directive that such requests go through a departmental office. Frazier declined to comment further. Committee members expressed outrage.

The new director of the Internal Investigation Division, Maj. Carl Brown, said a polygraph technician is being investigated for allegedly being overtly biased against black officers accused of wrongdoing.

Frazier said it was an "error in judgment" for Lt. Jos C. Gutberlet to order a member of the Criminal Intelligence Unit to attend meetings of the Community Relations Commission -- which investigates racial discrimination in city agencies -- and the black officers' Vanguard Justice Society. "We don't engage in domestic spying," the commissioner said.

Councilman Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr., offering a staunch defense of Frazier, brought race to the forefront of his remarks about the white police chief, saying discrimination has existed under black chiefs: "It is so easy to criticize someone who is white who is doing a good job for the citizens of Baltimore."

Gary May, the Police Department's chief legal counsel, seemed to compare the NAACP to white-separatist groups. In answering a question about how the department would deal with an officer who belonged to such a group, he said that the officer could no more be fired for his personal views than a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People -- an inflammatory comparison that angered some committee members.

Officer Gary McLhinney, the police union president, was accused by Sam Ringgold, the department's chief spokesman, of calling Councilwoman Sheila Dixon a "goddamn bitch" after she questioned his organization's commitment to racial equality. McLhinney vehemently denies making the statement.

But McLhinney inflamed tensions once more. According to Lt. Allen S. Kogut, an aide to Frazier, McLhinney called the commissioner's office after the council hearing but was told Frazier did not wish to speak with him. Kogut said McLhinney told him to have Frazier call or "this is war."

Herbert Weiner, McLhinney's lawyer, said his client was referring to Ringgold, saying if the spokesman "wanted war, there would be war." Weiner said that threats to file administrative charges against McLhinney are a way "to stifle legitimate comments. They are trying to shut him up."

O'Malley said that despite the acrimony, he is trying to "look at the positive. I'm glad the Police Department has formulated some changes and plans on implementing them."

But the councilman says the admissions about secretly sending officers to meetings and restricting how information is disseminated to elected officials -- which reportedly prompted one command member to take a polygraph test -- "shows a strange paranoia."

"In one breath, Frazier tells you he doesn't retaliate against members of his department, but he has a member of his command staff who feels compelled to take a polygraph to clear him or herself of the horrible allegations of talking to council members."

McLhinney's alleged comments about Dixon, which sparked an uproar at City Hall yesterday, were triggered by the councilwoman's question to Frazier about how much influence the union has had on past police commissioners.

The Fraternal Order of Police has been accused in the past of being unfriendly to black officers while maintaining a close relationship with commissioners, which Frazier has said hampered the department's ability to mete out discipline. Frazier inherited a disciplinary system that had a three-year backlog of cases.

But recently, McLhinney's organization has been at the forefront of the race issue, holding news conferences for black officers when they sue the department and pushing for disciplinary reforms.

Dixon questioned Frazier on whether the FOP had lost influence under his command and raised questions about the group's commitment to racial equality. McLhinney said the councilwoman insulted his 1,000 black members, who make up about a third of the union's membership.

D'Adamo said that the only people who gained anything from the hearing were the people pushing their own agendas, either officers accused of wrongdoing who want to be cleared or

politicians looking to advance.

"Why are we putting so much into this when we have people being killed on the street?" D'Adamo said yesterday. "How do the citizens benefit from last night?"

Pub Date: 3/08/97

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