Frazier goes out still ranked the best

October 02, 1999|By GREGORY KANE

THOMAS C. Frazier walked into the conference room of the Baltimore Police Department headquarters Sept. 24 in full uniform -- the four stars on each shoulder of his blazer clearly identifying him as the man in charge.

He had on his glasses as he read from his prepared statement. He said all the right and predictable things: "I found that within the ranks of this agency, there were bright, hard-working men and women with a desire for excellence."

"The record of accomplishments speaks for itself."

"Officers and citizens deserve to be proud of what we have achieved together."

Yada, yada, yada.

When Frazier finished, Peter Hermann of The Sun asked him to respond to Democratic mayoral candidate Martin O'Malley's parting shot upon learning the commissioner was leaving: Sic semper tyrannis (Thus always to tyrants).

"I wish Mr. O'Malley well," Frazier answered. "I wish Mr. [David] Tufaro [the Republican mayoral candidate] well."

Couldn't this guy get angry? Now was the perfect time to get in some parting shots of his own. With the criticism he'd taken, Frazier was entitled to it. Instead, he acted like a man who hadn't just stepped out of a war zone.

But he had. Frazier's been at war -- with his City Council and state legislature critics, the Fraternal Order of Police and some of his own subordinates -- ever since he arrived. And the war may have damaged him. In war, the saying goes, truth is the first casualty.

The day after I wrote a column extolling Frazier as the best police commissioner the city has ever had, two callers telephoned to accuse Frazier of perfidy about the department's homicide unit.

"He straight-out lied about the number of black homicide officers when he arrived," charged one caller, who works outside the department but is familiar with it. In the column, Frazier claimed there were only six black homicide detectives of 33 total when he took over the department. The caller said there were 11. Frazier had somehow misplaced five black homicide detectives.

A second caller who works in the department but insisted on anonymity said the same. Both callers said Frazier was also misleading about the homicide clearance rate.

Frazier was taking no interviews yesterday and couldn't respond. Department spokeswoman Angelique Cook-Hayes said folks in personnel were checking the figures. Did Frazier deliberately lie about the figures or was he given bad data? It doesn't matter. Assuming the worst -- that Frazier deliberately lied -- he wouldn't be the first Baltimore police commissioner -- or the first police officer -- to do it. Former Commissioner Frank J. Battaglia was almost universally praised when he died not long ago. But it was Battaglia who gave me my first lesson in the compulsive mendacity inherent in police culture.

When I and about a dozen companions were demonstrating against police brutality in front of the Western District station about 30 years ago, it was then Colonel Battaglia who came over and talked to us. After a brief and peaceful exchange, he returned across the street and ordered us arrested and charged with inciting to riot.

At the bail hearing the next day, Battaglia decided to add some details to the incident. He talked to us, he told the judge, and we had thrown a rock and a bottle at him as he walked back across the street. I was appalled when a man so duplicitous was promoted to commissioner 13 years later.

So if prevarication didn't affect Battaglia's legacy as commissioner, it shouldn't affect Frazier's. The protests of his critics notwithstanding, Frazier is still the best police commissioner Baltimore's ever had. This is a department that, under Bernie Schmidt in the early 1960s, was one of the worst in the country. Schmidt was commissioner when Baltimore police went door-to-door in black neighborhoods conducting warrantless searches for the Veney brothers, two cop killers. The raids were the low point of the Schmidt regime.

Donald Pomerleau was appointed in 1966 to clean up the mess. The result was that the department wasn't necessarily good, just less of a mess. Successive commissioners held the fort until Frazier's arrival. It was Frazier who made the substantive changes such as promoting more blacks than his predecessors and implementing a fairer disciplinary system.

All along the way, his critics groused about how awful a commissioner he was. Frazier had a chance to give the back of his hand to all of them during his resignation announcement. He chose not to do so. Perhaps he didn't want to burn any bridges. Maybe he just wants the war to end. But I was hoping he would at least tell the media the quote he said one of his sergeants gave him. It eloquently summed up Frazier's troubles as commissioner.

"You head a department," the sergeant said to Frazier, "that has 150 years of tradition uninterrupted by progress, and you're disturbing that."

Pub Date: 10/02/99

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