As Frazier departs, city police brace for period of uncertainty

Department prepares for restructuring, major policy changes

October 04, 1999|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's crime-fighting force is embarking on an uncertain future with the departure Friday of its commissioner, and bracing for a restructuring that could alter its top ranks and strategies for keeping people safe.

Speculation about the new police leadership and debates over new ways to combat criminals are heating up as three interim chiefs -- each serving a three-week term -- begin leading the 3,200-member department until the new mayor takes office Dec. 7.

Top police officials say they are working to ensure continuity after Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier's resignation to take a job in the U.S. Justice Department.

Both mayoral nominees, Democrat Martin O'Malley and Republican David F. Tufaro, have called for changes in the way city police operate. O'Malley has proposed sweeping policy revisions, including more aggressive patrols to restore order.

O'Malley is trying to hire Jack Maple, a former New York transit officer credited with revolutionizing police work with computers, to help find a new commissioner.

"My job right now is to steer the ship and make sure there is a smooth transition for the next commissioner," said Col. John E. Gavrilis, the first acting chief, whose first full day was Saturday.

"As with any new administration, there will be new ideas and new policies," the 25-year veteran said. "We are a very adept agency. This may sound corny, but we will continue to work to bring crime down. We wouldn't be cops if we didn't want to do that."

Interviews with 10 City Council members -- who will vote on whether to confirm the new commissioner -- indicate little consensus. Some lament Frazier's departure, and others say they look forward to a new era of policing.

"I want someone who is going to come in and straighten out Baltimore City," said Edward L. Reisinger, a 6th District Democrat.

Frazier, a reform-minded police executive hired to restore confidence in the force and reduce crime, said he thought he had succeeded.

He strolled into his fifth-floor office at police headquarters on his last morning wearing a charcoal gray suit -- the first time during his five-year, eight-month, 11-day tenure that he had not worn a dress-white uniform with sidearm hanging from his gun belt.

"It's a time of transition," he said.

Despite years of turmoil over race, policies and crime strategies, Frazier hopes changes remain in effect that he said modernized a department lacking computers, made officers more accountable and rebuilt residents' trust in the department.

Frazier, who begins his new job in Washington tomorrow as director of the Community Oriented Police Services program, would not speculate on who he thinks should succeed him. He said the new mayor should conduct a nationwide search to bring legitimacy to the selection, but he indicated that an internal candidate is likely.

"There are a half-dozen people in this Police Department who could be chief anywhere in the country," he said. "I think it will be hard to find someone from the outside who can compete with them."

Most City Council members interviewed said they would support an internal choice.

"One of the biggest rumor mills is City Hall," said Lois Gary, who represents the 1st District. "Next to that is police headquarters."

As the transition continued, Col. Bert Shirey, who has worked for seven commissioners in 33 years, addressed supervisors at a weekly crime meeting Thursday and urged them to focus on work.

"Changes in administrations are always stressful," he said. "Ignore the rumors that inevitably go on."

Neither mayoral candidate is saying whom he might pick for police commissioner. Tufaro has said that he knows little about how the department operates or about the tumultuous politics at police headquarters.

O'Malley focused his campaign -- and his recent years on the City Council -- on crime issues. He had called for Frazier's removal and, upon winning the Democratic primary last month, said "gone" when asked about Frazier's future.

He did not win the support of the city's Fraternal Order of Police or the Vanguard Justice Society, a group for black officers concerned that O'Malley's "zero-tolerance" approach to crime might lead to abuse.

The FOP held a union-hall fund-raiser that raised $30,000 for O'Malley before he got into the race, and 800 officers gave him an ovation when he addressed their membership meeting last month.

O'Malley told the cheering officers that they would no longer be stymied by City Hall politics as they embark an aggressive campaign to lower crime. "You lead, we will follow," the union president, Officer Gary McLhinney, told the candidate after proclaiming that "the Tom Frazier era is over."

O'Malley has promised, if elected, to end a policy of rotating officers to new assignments every three or four years. O'Malley also said he would immediately reverse an order Frazier gave to rotate 35 officers effective Friday, his last day in office.

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