Frazier to head research group Influential association aids cities in creating crime-fighting policies

August 12, 1998|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's police commissioner has been elected president of an influential research group that helps set crime-fighting policies for cities across the country and is known for its progressive, innovative ideas.

While Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier remains head of Baltimore's police force, leadership of the Police Executive Research Forum with its several hundred members offers him a national spotlight to speak on behalf of the country's largest police departments.

"Tom Frazier is clearly one of the major police leaders in the country," said Lawrence W. Sherman, chairman of the criminal justice department at the University of Maryland, College Park. "He now has the opportunity to make his leadership national in scope."

Frazier, who yesterday was at a community policing conference in Chicago, said his election "means a lot to the city, which should be justifiably proud of its Police Department. Everyone recognizes that law enforcement needs to be drastically different. Management decisions need to be research based."

The commissioner was referring to a trend in which departments shy away from 911-based reactionary policing and work to identify crime trends to head off violence before it starts.

Crime has dropped in Baltimore under Frazier, but the reductions have not been as dramatic as in such cities as New York and Boston. Of particular concern is the city's homicide rate, which remains steady while it drops significantly elsewhere.

Since coming to Baltimore in 1994 from San Jose, Calif., Frazier has instituted a series of reforms that upset the rank and file, who voted for his ouster in February 1997, saying their boss had failed to put forth a clear strategy to fight violent crime.

But Frazier, whose contract runs until 2002, has lasted longer than most big-city police chiefs, who typically run into political turbulence and resign or get fired within three to four years.

Chiefs and former chiefs interviewed yesterday said they liked the way Frazier has survived potentially career-ending controversies, particularly a dispute last year in which Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke publicly overturned the commissioner's suspension of a top black deputy in what became a racial uproar.

"He's had some tough times down there," said William J. Bratton, the former police commissioner in New York and Boston and now a member of a think tank.

"His selection as the head of PERF is a reflection of the way he has handled his internal problems."

Bratton said the forum "attracts the most progressive, management-oriented police leaders in the country." He said "this appointment enhances Baltimore's opportunities to access funds and grants" because of the closeness to people in power.

Ruben Ortega, chief of the Salt Lake City Police Department, said Frazier "doesn't mind taking risks." Ortega, chairman of Major City Chiefs, which represents the nation's 52 largest police forces, said chiefs "don't take enough risks. Perhaps that's because we're not allowed to. Our jobs are in constant jeopardy."

Frazier replaces Gil Kerlikowske, the former police commissioner Buffalo, N.Y., who resigned a month ago to work at the U.S. Justice Department. Frazier is serving out the remainder of Kerlikowske's two-year term, which ends June 30, 1999.

The research forum was founded in 1977 by Patrick Murphy, a former New York police commissioner, and Cornelius J. Behan, a former chief from Baltimore County, who felt there wasn't enough research on policing U.S. cities.

The Washington-based group performs a wide variety of functions, from helping cities find new chiefs to training officers in managing their departments. Members testify before congressional committees on such topics as gun violence, drug trafficking and the homeless.

The organization recently published a book to help citizens rate the effectiveness of their police, openly fights the National Rifle Association and in 1985 filed briefs with the Supreme Court supporting making it illegal for officers to shoot unarmed, feeing felons.

Frazier's innovations include getting Baltimore the nation's first 311 nonemergency number to help free officers from answering calls that don't require an immediate response and allowing them more time to police their communities.

Frazier's Police Athletic Leagues have been recognized by the Clinton administration as a national model and he has pushed for judicial reform in Baltimore. He also restructured the department's command staff while moving 450 officers from desk duty to street patrol.

But he has drawn criticism from some City Council members for his reluctance to implement so-called "zero-tolerance" policing in which officers try to make arrests in every crime, no matter how minor, under the theory that that will cut down on violent crime. The practice is widely credited with New York's crime drop.

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