Frazier likely casualty of campaign focus on crime -- even as it declines in the city

June 27, 1999|By MICHAEL OLESKER

BEFORE THIS campaign for mayor of Baltimore is done, we will all witness the only known metaphorical hanging of a police commissioner -- while crime is going down.

To no one's surprise, Lawrence Bell insinuated this while eating lunch the other day, and Martin O'Malley hinted at it in passing last week while discussing the phrase "zero tolerance." Carl Stokes hasn't particularly mentioned Commissioner Thomas Frazier by name, but he has a wonderful slogan he uses like a mantra as he marches through the city's neighborhoods these days: "I'm not going to live like this any more."

The line gets us to the heart of the matter: While the rest of the country bathes in money, and many large cities launch marvelous comebacks, Baltimore's second renaissance remains iffy and is tied irrevocably to its continuing crime, which causes everyone in the metro area to live in perpetual anxiety.

Yes, the numbers are down. But in places such as New York, the drop in crime seems utterly miraculous and is reportedly fueled by the police practice of zero tolerance: Arrest even minor offenders, whose actions affect everyone's "quality of life" -- which is another phrase repeated like a mantra, and sums up a state of mind beyond numerical measurement.

There are two problems with this: One, Commissioner Frazier doesn't buy the zero tolerance approach. Two, he makes an interesting point.

In this political season, though, he may pay a price for his principles.

Last week, Martin O'Malley, standing on a Northeast Baltimore street corner where he said a drug dealer had casually tried to pitch a little business his way the night before, alluded to this.

"Look," he said, "I'm the guy who called for [Frazier's] resignation a year and a half ago."

He has fought with Frazier over zero tolerance, and over interpretation of the city's diminishing crime figures. Six months ago, O'Malley wrote an op-ed piece for this newspaper, headlined "Zero-tolerance only way to cut homicide rate," in which he berated police policies that allow "drug dealers to rule our corners."

The same sentiments come from Lawrence Bell.

"Whoever is my police commissioner," Bell said, projecting with great political optimism while lunching the other day, "has to believe 100 percent in zero tolerance."

"Frazier says zero tolerance is [baloney]," he was reminded.

"Yes," Bell said softly. "But we don't know if he believes this or he's just carrying water for the mayor."

"He doesn't know, huh?" Frazier declared, when apprised of Bell's words. Then followed much vivid language that cannot be repeated in a family newspaper, and some that can.

"Listen," Frazier said, "you know what happens if we tried zero tolerance here? Five minutes after we start a shift, and our officers hit the street, they'd all go out of service. Why? Because everybody'd be jumping out of their cars and grabbing some guy for a minor offense out in the open, while the serious criminal's off doing his own thing."

Frazier has heard the zero tolerance arguments before and reddens when he hears them tied to political campaigns. Then he reaches for numbers, which seem to offer encouragement to a city that has felt besieged for years.

Police figures say crime dropped nearly 11 percent in the first four months of this year, continuing a downward trend that started three years ago. This included a serious drop in homicides: 77 killings through April, compared with 106 in the first four months of last year. For a city averaging about 300 killings a year over the past decade, that's good news.

What's more, rape is down 22 percent, assaults are down 13 percent, burglary is down 14 percent, and auto theft is down 18 percent.

But is it enough? The job of police commissioner is an automatic hot seat, and Frazier has had his share of political fights. His rotation system has been blasted, mainly for the effect it's had on career homicide cops. Also, there have been high-profile fights involving racial tension.

And Frazier's an appointee of Kurt L. Schmoke, which does little to endear him to any of the current mayoral contenders. They've danced lightly around any direct criticism of Schmoke, not wanting to rouse any backlash.

But all criticism of city problems implicitly comes back to this mayor, and his chief crime fighter will bear some of that heat -- no matter what the latest police statistics seem to say.

Pub Date: 6/27/99

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