Time To Talk Blue, Not Black And White

April 27, 1997|By MICHAEL OLESKER

AT 3: 15 FRIDAY afternoon, Police Col. Ronald Daniel stepped onto a City Hall elevator and looked directly into the eyes of the man standing inside. It was Police Commissioner Thomas Frazier. The two men nodded solemnly. Then Daniel looked down, Frazier stared elsewhere, and not a word was exchanged as they rode upstairs to a meeting with a mayor of Baltimore ready to strangle them both.

Barely an hour later, the two men emerged on either side of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, and peace in our time was declared. At least for 90 days. There were no handshakes witnessed by anyone, nor even words of public diplomacy by the two officers. But the mayor said everyone had agreed to think first of the citizens of this city.

And then he mentioned race.

"We want to stop talking black and white in the Police Department and start talking blue," the mayor said. He was unsmiling throughout. "It doesn't matter to citizens what the color of the officer is."

This was music to the ears of those who remember race in Schmoke's last campaign for mayor. It came as a sigh of relief to those who have watched Frazier, the white commissioner, and Daniel, the highest ranking black officer, confront each other in the past week with the most unhealthy racial contentiousness hovering barely off-stage.

"I asked [Frazier] to be an agent of change," Schmoke said. "I knew a lot of feathers would be ruffled. We've got serious issues of race. But we have to pull people together, not tear them apart."

If such language sounds simple enough, it's also loaded with nuances in a department with racial tension based on promotions, and on punishments, some of which came to a boil last week when Frazier suspended Daniel, and Schmoke stepped in and unsuspended him.

"You couldn't get finer police officers," Schmoke said Friday of the two men.

Among the ranks of the Baltimore police, Daniel is regarded as tough, smart, sometimes abrasive, always intolerant of sloppy police work and infuriated by laziness. Also, he declares whatever's on his mind.

Sometimes, he's declared it to the commissioner. He's told Frazier he is tired of being trotted out for City Council meetings and such, where Frazier's had to defend various charges of racial insensitivity in his department.

Daniel felt he was invited along mainly for his skin color. Look at this, his appearance said. We have high-ranking black people in the department, and here's one sitting with the commissioner. It was a subliminal message to politicians, and also a nice visual for any television cameras that might be transmitting the scene to thousands of people's homes.

Frazier might have been guilty of such maneuvering because he knows how such things work. He's been on the other side of it. The game's been played on him by Schmoke, who can point to Frazier and almost no other white person among his high-profile appointments in the 10 years he's been running this city.

It's the way the game has always been played, and, of course, it gets us nowhere in ridding ourselves of racial divisiveness. But generations of white politicians took care of their own, so who's to blame Schmoke for handing jobs to black people?

In fact, the rap against Schmoke isn't the appointment of black people. It's about appointing people who contribute directly to the city's various anxieties, from the abrasive Daniel Henson who presides over the fall of neighborhoods, or Walter Amprey, who couldn't stop the 25-year skid of the schools, or Frazier, whose confrontation with Daniel is only the latest of his troubles.

A few months ago, the Fraternal Order of Police issued a vote of no-confidence in Frazier. Its president, Gary McLhinney, has been calling for Frazier's resignation for months. Two majors, Wendell France and Barry Powell, have asked Schmoke to fire Frazier. At week's end, Sgt. Teresa E. Cunningham, president of Vanguard, which represents about 600 of the department's 1,100 black officers, did the same.

"We deserve an honest commissioner," Cunningham said, spitting the words out. "I don't think Frazier should continue to be commissioner. There's too much tension in the department. We're all sick and tired, all races, over the disparity of treatment."

With such language now being flung about so casually by so many officers, it raises questions: Why was Daniel singled out for suspension? Where is the line drawn on what's acceptable speech by a police officer? Can Frazier, having been overruled on the Daniel suspension by Schmoke, continue to hold his job with any confidence among his own officers? Does it count for nothing that, in the past three months, violent crime in Baltimore dropped 20 percent -- the most dramatic reduction since Schmoke became mayor?

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