Policy on police, politics to be reviewed

Union allowed to endorse

officers in ads at issue

August 20, 1999|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Troubled by uniformed Baltimore police officers appearing in a mayoral candidate's television ad, a top department commander said yesterday that the practice will be reviewed, and possibly prohibited, in future campaigns.

"I find it personally distasteful to become involved in political events," said Col. Bert Shirey, who is chief of the patrol bureau.

The officers appear in an ad for Lawrence A. Bell III, who has called for police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier to be fired. The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, which represents all but 200 of the city's 3,200 officers, is endorsing Bell in his bid for City Hall.

"As a general rule, members of the force are prohibited from engaging in political activity as members of the department," Shirey said. "It has been long determined that this would not apply to the FOP." The officers in the ad were off-duty.

Shirey said he approved the request, made by FOP president Officer Gary McLhinney, to avoid last-minute political wrangling and possible complaints that the department was against Bell.

"It was a battle we couldn't win," Shirey said. "It would have caused problems that would have been a distraction to our primary mission of fighting crime."

The commander said he watched the ad, which hails Bell as a crime-fighter, and "didn't see anything outrageous." But while the ad clearly states that the officers, including McLhinney, are appearing on the union's behalf, Shirey said it might not be clear to those watching.

"Most people see the officer in uniform and find it difficult to distinguish between the FOP and the department," Shirey said. "We're dealing with all honorable candidates here. But we are going to look at our policy."

McLhinney, a frequent critic of the commissioner, said, "We are clearly not representing the Baltimore Police Department." He added: "You don't endorse to keep it in the closet. You endorse to let everyone know."

The union head said Bell has 12 years of supporting public safety and law enforcement. "He is clearly the leader and has made this his issue, even when it wasn't popular. He deserves the credit."

Four years ago, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke appeared next to a marked police cruiser in political trading cards during his fight against Mary Pat Clarke. He said he was careful not to appear with recognizable officers.

But Schmoke held a news conference alongside Frazier, using a marked police vehicle as a backdrop, to talk about crime issues at the height of the campaign against Clarke, in which the city's high homicide rate was a central issue.

In December, newly elected Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens fired Police Chief Larry W. Tolliver, who allowed on-duty officers to appear in print ads for incumbent candidate John G. Gary. The county's ethics commission ruled that Gary had abused his office.

Shirey, the Baltimore commander, said it is important for the police to be free of perceived political influence.

"It's very difficult to separate police from the various forces that run the city," Shirey added. "It's impossible to keep us completely free from it. But professionally, we try to stay as far away from it as practical."

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