Frazier draws mixed reviews

Chief: While critics and admirers of the departing police commissioner agree that his five-year tenure had a significant impact, they disagree over whether it was for good or ill.

September 26, 1999|By Peter Hermann

A MONTH AFTER Thomas C. Frazier was sworn in as Baltimore's new police commissioner in early 1994, the outsider from California got an earful from residents fed up with escalating crime.

"The cops are scared of the drug dealers," Lisa Allen, a Park Heights resident, shouted during a community forum. "They control the streets, not you."

How could the city's front-line crime fighters not confront drug dealers, a bewildered Frazier asked out loud.

"Either you don't know how to," he would bluntly tell his troops, "you're afraid to, you don't care, or someone is corrupt."

Then he raided Greenmount Avenue. "We took the worst, most dangerous, most violent area of town and went in and, in fairly short order, cleaned it up, took it back and held it," he proudly proclaimed.

Five years later, crime is still a major issue in Baltimore. As Frazier, 54, wraps up his tenure and a new mayor prepares to take office, questions remain as to whether the city is a safe place to live and work.

Frazier maintains that he has turned the city's police force into a national model and pushed crime to a 10-year low.

However, ending violence was a pivotal issue in the recent mayoral primary campaign and propelled one of Frazier's strongest critics, Councilman Martin O'Malley, to a primary victory, as he called for a new get-tough policing strategy to produce the crime-rate drops seen in other big cities.

Crime did not fall fast enough in Baltimore for many critics, and in contrast to the murder rates in other towns across the country, Baltimore's homicide figures stayed stubbornly high. This year might be the first this decade to see fewer than 300 slayings in the city.

"We've become a city that might celebrate the fact that less than 300 people died, and we'll still be one of the deadliest cities in the country," said Officer Gary McLhinney, the president of the local Fraternal Order of Police.

Residents interviewed in West Baltimore had mixed reactions to Frazier's departure and the reported decline in crime.

"They've got more cops on the beat," said Joe A. Smit. "I don't hear about as many murders or robberies."

But Nikki D. Johnson said she notices "a lot of things around here that need to be changed. They need to get the people off the corner selling drugs and get them jobs. I don't go out at night. I got robbed once, so I'm still scared to walk by myself at night."

A new era of policing is about to begin. For good or bad, Frazier's five-year reign had a profound effect on policing and the city's psyche.

Perhaps not since Donald D. Pomerleau arrived in 1967 to reform a corrupt and brutal force had Baltimore seen a commissioner like Thomas Frazier, a soccer coach and father of three who once trucked in loads of dirt to bring beach-style volleyball to this gritty East Coast city 150 miles from the ocean.

He is loudly championed by some as a crime-fighting savior of the city -- and condemned in other quarters as the worst thing that could have happened to the Baltimore Police Department.

A top black police colonel has openly called him a racist. The black police chaplain said Frazier is so good that she hoped the new mayor would "wake up and see that this commissioner is doing so much to bring this city along."

Frazier wore his pressed uniform and his sidearm nearly everywhere -- whether it was to join an officer on patrol or to chat with the city's money set at swanky cocktail parties. He could talk as easily to residents of Park Heights as he could lobby for money at the White House.

Sometimes, he seemed more like a social worker than a police chief, able to issue thoughtful statements on the state of civic affairs. He was as comfortable under the glare of television lights as a seasoned politician.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke hired Frazier as a new breed of police executive, a progressive innovator who promised to bring fresh ideas to a crime-weary city with one of the oldest, and most traditional, departments in the country. He quickly made his mark:

n Years of arresting drug addicts generated impressive statistics but did little to solve the overall problem, he said, and so he ordered his officers to concentrate on guns and to ignore people who carried small amounts of drugs.

n He took over city recreation centers that were losing money and being used as havens by drug dealers, and he built a Police Athletic League that attracted hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations and is held up as a national model by the White House.

n Saying he wanted to hire officers "in the spirit of service, not adventure," he made Baltimore one of the first cities in the nation to institute the Police Corps, a unique program that pays college tuition for students who agree to become police officers for four years.

n He launched the nation's first 311 nonemergency number to alleviate an overburdened 911 system and to cut the number of frivolous calls to which officers had to respond.

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