Frazier's critics inflate the case against him City police: Disputed crime statistics, admission of racism are ammunition of top cop's foes.

October 08, 1998

WITH NEXT year's mayoral and City Council elections as a backdrop, Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier increasingly has found himself in the spotlight.

Hired more than four years ago from San Jose, Calif., to improve the dispirited Police Department, he has spotty results to show for his efforts.

Some categories of crime are down -- but homicides are not. Meanwhile, his attempts to change the culture of the department are still incomplete, partially due to resistance from the rank and file.

"It takes 10 years to turn a police department around," Mr. Frazier says, referring to internal issues ranging from "patterns of disparity" to a "power base of unions."

In recent months, Mr. Frazier has not made the situation any easier for himself. Most notably, he became embroiled in a protracted dispute over apparently erroneous shooting statistics that made the department look more successful than it is.

This led to charges that he is a liar or that all his motives are $$ suspect. Even his admission of what should be seen as the obvious -- that racism and inequity persist in the Police Department despite efforts to root them out -- has been grabbed by some critics as evidence of the commissioner's duplicity.

This high-decibel debate is not surprising. Crime is a top concern of Baltimoreans, from taxpayers to politicians. Everybody has an opinion on cops or crime -- and a story to tell. Mr. Frazier is not the first Baltimore top cop to be raked over the coals.

The volume of rhetoric critical of Mr. Frazier is certain to increase over the next year. The city's high homicide rate and the failed efforts by the police to eradicate open-air drug markets will be among the key issues in the 1999 city election. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke knows this: While trying to make up his mind about seeking a fourth term, he is quietly studying ways to toughen his stand on crime.

When Mr. Frazier came to Baltimore, years of poor management, confused priorities and chaotic staffing policies had reduced Baltimore City's once-vaunted 3,100-strong police force to a seat-of-the-pants operation.

Specialized units had been decimated; cronyism had replaced clear-headed goal setting at the top. Easy drug busts had taken priority -- at the expense of investigating life-threatening assaults and robberies.

Mr. Frazier set out to change all that. But when he started regular rotations of detectives -- to open up slots for African Americans and other minorities -- he encountered obstructionism.

Veterans felt they were being demoted. Unpredictable work schedules also played havoc with second jobs that many officers had taken. Unhappy officers soon began whispering that Mr. Frazier could not be counted upon to support his officers.

As many other American cities adopted "zero-tolerance" policing methods and reported dramatic drops in crime, Baltimore has seldom matched those successes. The City Council -- particularly President Lawrence A. Bell III and Councilman Martin O'Malley -- urged the commissioner to get tough.

But Mr. Frazier, taking his cue from Mayor Schmoke's civil liberties concerns about "zero tolerance," rejected those calls. Instead, he tried to show that Baltimore was making progress. This was the origin of the now-discredited shooting statistics.

Whether the reason was an innocent oversight or vanity, Mr. Frazier deserves criticism for allowing the appearance of statistical deception. Taken alone, this does not warrant his replacement.

But it makes his already tough job even more difficult. His judgment and crime-fighting record may well become defining issues in the 1999 campaign.

Pub Date: 10/08/98

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