O'Malley, Frazier locked in dispute over crime numbers

Officials to meet today on shootings

March 30, 1998|By Gerard Shields, The Baltimore Sun

When Baltimore City Councilman Martin O'Malley noticed discrepancies last week in 1996 police shooting reports, he had two options.

He could take the figures to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke,Police Chief Thomas C. Frazier and council colleagues for an explanation. Or, the former prosecutor could turn up the political heat -- which he did -- by accusing Frazier of intentionally underreporting shootings to make the city appear safer. The police chief denies the allegations.

Because of a long-running feud between the two men over how the city should fight crime, O'Malley'scharges pushed the debate into a political fight to the finish.

O'Malley and Frazier are expected to meet today with Schmoke, Council President Lawrence A. Bell III and Comptroller Joan Pratt, who is considering a council request to audit police shooting reports to determine the truth.

The council's Legislative Investigations Committee is also scheduled to meet at noon. The meetings could result in the city developing a method to determine which man is right.

If his accusations aren't proven, O'Malley, touted as a future state's attorney candidate, could watch his credibility erode.

"If he's saying the police commissioner cooked the numbers, that's a very serious charge," Schmoke said. "If he can't prove it, then he's very irresponsible and he owes an apology to the police chief and to the citizens of Baltimore."

But if an independent party, such as Pratt, can determine a problem with the chief's shooting statistics, O'Malley will seize the opportunity to call for the chief's ouster.

"We are not against this commissioner," said Bell, O'Malley's chief ally on the council. "But if we held the last commissioner up to a standard, we must do the same."

To Frazier supporters, including Schmoke, O'Malley'sattack is viewed as his latest attempt to get rid of a police chief whose crime-fighting strategies O'Malley ridicules.

To O'Malley fans, including the department's Fraternal Order of Police union leaders, the shooting report evidence could be the thread needed to unravel Frazier's administration.

Toward the end of last week,police officials acknowledged that crime reporting errors occur. But the department denies that mistakes were frequent enough to change Frazier's contention that city shootings have been cut in half since his arrival in 1994.

More important, the police said, in no way did the chief intentionally try to mislead the public about city safety.

O'Malley's investigation of city shootings began shortly after Frazier made his claim last year. The chief's assertion puzzled O'Malley and Bell, who were perplexed that city shootings could drop while homicides remained fairly constant, more than 300 per year since 1989.

While New York and Boston saw the number of homicides drop to 30-year lows, Baltimore's figures bucked the national trend, remaining relatively stable.

The 3rd District councilman began matching city shooting statistics from 1991 through 1996 against numbers recorded by the Maryland State Police, Baltimore hospital emergency rooms and FBI statistics on homicides involving guns.

Two figures caught O'Malley'seye. Frazier reported shootings in the city dropped 29 percent during 1994, his first year in office. In the state, hospital and FBI figures, shootings dropped an average of 8.5 percent.

Similarly, in 1996, shootings dropped 1.5 percent, according to state, hospital and FBI records. Frazier reported that city shootings dropped an average of 15 percent. O'Malley audited two months ofpolice shooting reports for November 1993 and 1996. The findings caused O'Malley to accuse Frazier of intentionally inflating the shooting reports of his predecessor, Edward V. Woods, by counting any incident in which a gun was used.

"There is even one in here where an [officer] didn't even see a gun,"O'Malley said staring at a stack of police reports.

Frazier and his department leaders dismiss O'Malley'sstudy as political vindictiveness. They claim O'Malley never asked them to explain how shootings are reported and obtained the wrong figures for his study.

Frazier couldn't have altered Woods' November 1993 numbers because the reports are filed monthly, said police spokesman Robert W. Weinhold Jr. Frazier didn't assume his post until February 1994.

The police system of reporting shootings changed after 1995. All shootings are reported to the department's Violent Crime Task Force, which calculates the figures. Task force figures, which O'Malley never requested, are the most accurate data, Weinhold said.

John Tewey, former head of the task force, retired last year after differences with Frazier. But Tewey said he has no doubt that the numbers Frazier reported in noting the 50 percent drop in shootings is accurate.

"The commissioner has done a good job," said Tewey, a 23-year veteran. "The police commissioner of Baltimore should be left alone for a while to do his job. Politics are at play and the losers are the citizens."

The city has been in this position before. In 1971, the police administration was rocked after the department admitted downgrading the severity of some reports to reduce the city's major crime rate.

In his review of November 1996 figures,O'Malley said Frazier ignored some shootings in his count to keep the city's crime statistics artificially low.

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