Baltimore police have race bias, Frazier testifies Deposition discloses department problems, unequal treatment 'I believe it is true'

September 30, 1998|By Peter Hermann and Michael James | Peter Hermann and Michael James,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's police commissioner, whose tenure has been marred by allegations of racial insensitivity, has testified under oath that problems of racial discrimination exist in his department and that black officers are more likely to face discipline than their white colleagues.

The testimony by Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier came during three days of interrogation for a deposition -- made public yesterday -- in a $13.5 million civil lawsuit that accuses the Police Department of bias in the transfer of a black helicopter pilot.

During questioning in April and July, Frazier discussed a wide range of topics, rating his colleagues, denying ever uttering a racial slur and describing tense disputes at the top of the command chain.

Asked whether he agreed with an assessment that there is a problem of discrimination based on race in his department, the commissioner said: "I think that is a little more difficult to evaluate, but in my personal belief system, I believe it is true."

Asked whether there was a "clear disparity" in the number of black officers fired for disciplinary reasons, Frazier answered: "It is true." He also said there was a disparity among black officers disciplined short of firing.

Since August, The Sun has sought to obtain a copy of the deposition, which was sealed at the request of city lawyers. Yesterday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul W. Grimm made the testimony public.

Frazier declined to discuss his testimony yesterday. His chief spokesman, Robert W. Weinhold Jr., also would not comment on specifics, citing the pending litigation. But he defended Frazier's turbulent tenure in dealing with racial issues on the 3,200-member force.

"There have been comprehensive measures taken to address the issues and perceptions of racial disparity within the department," Weinhold said. "However, the issues of racial disparity and discrimination in the department is an historical injustice which cannot be resolved overnight."

Over the past two years, Frazier has implemented reforms to confront the racial discord in his department. City lawyers sought to play down the significance of the testimony yesterday, saying the commissioner has been upfront about racial problems for years.

But earlier in the day, the city fought to keep the deposition secret, arguing that a public airing could lead to "an unraveling of a lot of situations" in the police force.

Mary R. Craig, The Sun's lawyer, argued that keeping the commissioner's comments secret "would have a chilling effect on the free flow of information" about the city's crimefighting force.

"The public has an ongoing right to information which would enable it to form conclusions about whether the police department is being operated in a discriminatory manner," Craig wrote.

In ordering the the documents to be made public, Grimm said: "The court cannot deny access unless a compelling government interest is shown. I have not found any compelling government interest in this case."

The lawsuit, filed in 1996 by Sgt. Robert R. Richards, has not yet gone to trial but already has altered the department's highest ranks. Col. Ronald L. Daniel was transferred to an obscure City Hall post last year after he called Frazier a racist.

Duane Verderaime, a city attorney representing the Police Department, said he feared Frazier's comments would spark a controversy similar to the one that followed public disclosure of Daniel's deposition, which "had a profound impact on the department from top to bottom."

Gary May, the chief legal counsel for the Police Department, said many of the questions asked of Frazier were irrelevent.

The case "is not about racial discrimination in the department," he said. "This is a case about whether Richards was discriminated against when he was moved out of the helicopter unit." In his testimony, Frazier denied any discrimination against Richards.

Racial problems on the police force grew apparent two years ago during public hearings at City Hall in which officers told of being discriminated against and of the retaliation that followed.

Then came a report by the city's Community Relations Commission, which concluded that the department has a built-in racial bias in which black officers are more likely to be disciplined and fired than their white colleagues.

Frazier responded by promoting black commanders to oversee discipline, hiring and training. He also revamped trial boards to .. ensure minority participation and designed a system to make punishments more uniform.

He created a police advisory council on discrimination and a professional standards unit headed by a black major who reviews every case brought against officers by internal investigators.

But Richards' lawyer, Joseph T. Mallon Jr., quizzed Frazier on a variety of topics and tried to get him to admit that racism is a cancer in the police ranks. He asked the commissioner questions both broad and specific, ranging from policies to state of mind.

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