2 Daniel's start shows promise, pitfalls

With pressure on, police chief revamps with a vengeance

March 27, 2000|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

The pews of St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church were packed with mourning police officers, their heads bowed. A veteran sergeant stood to eulogize his son, killed just months after joining his father on the Baltimore police force.

Sgt. Frederick Roussey talked of criminals running city streets with impunity. Of daily gunfire. Of homicides that continue unabated and unsolved. Then he turned to the new leader of the Baltimore police, Commissioner Ronald L. Daniel.

"We have a police commissioner who cares," said Roussey, taking an unmistakable dig at the former administration. "He won't stand behind us. He will stand beside us."

The quiet befitting the solemn occasion was shattered by the applause of hundreds of uniformed officers, who have long complained their old boss was more interested in social programs than aggressively attacking crime.

From the day Daniel, 50, took over his hometown police force three months ago, he has been winning the loyalty of rank-and-file officers while purging people he views as disloyal -- five colonels have been pressured to leave.

A man on a mission, he has reorganized the command staff and acted decisively to restore competence in the homicide unit and keep experienced officers in their jobs.

Above all, Daniel, a 26-year veteran of the police force, must help Mayor Martin O'Malley fulfill a campaign promise to cut the number of homicides and end Baltimore's reputation as a haven for violence. He's doing his share: slapping handcuffs on suspects he's caught and demanding that his desk-bound commanders do the same to help clean up the city where he grew up.

"If not another damn soul is out there, he'll be out by himself, or he'll die trying," said his friend, Joseph S. Johnson, a former city police colonel who is chief of police in Annapolis. "His heart, soul and family is in that city."

But if Daniel is off to a promising start, the future is full of career-threatening perils. O'Malley, having made crime control his top priority, is pressuring Daniel to deliver quick results in a city where 300-plus killings a year is the norm.

Daniel's biggest problem may be Daniel himself.

He has a history of challenging authority, has purged his predecessor's leadership team with lightning speed and has already lost his cool after the mayor issued a public rebuke that the police weren't moving fast enough on crime.

Just three years ago, Daniel's career appeared over. Then colonel in charge of the patrol bureau, he had called his then-boss, Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier, a racist, sparking a furor that made him a martyr to some, an insubordinate troublemaker to others.

On Sept. 4, 1997, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke exiled Daniel from police headquarters to a small office in City Hall, saying that Daniel had "undermined his ability to be an effective leader."

Two years, three months and one day later, a new mayor who enjoys naming former rebels to head city departments made Daniel Baltimore's police commissioner.

Dr. Levi Watkins, a heart surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital and a civil rights activist, had kept a close watch on his friend Daniel's rise and fall through the ranks since noticing him as a promising young officer.

"Man, you deserve every bit of it," Watkins said he thought when the news was announced.

A short honeymoon

O'Malley, the shoot-from-the-hip mayor, was getting nervous. Weeks into his administration, his police leadership team was quiet. Drug dealers still ruled the corners, and 19 people had been killed in the first 20 days of 2000. Where was his police commissioner?

"I'm trying to be patient, and I'm having a difficult time being patient," O'Malley told reporters.

Daniel fumed. He had been named commissioner less than three weeks before. His top deputies weren't on the payroll. He still had to be confirmed by the City Council.

The new top cop called the mayor's press secretary at 6: 30 the next morning and screamed a profanity-laced tirade into the phone. It took two days to calm him down enough so he and O'Malley could meet.

Politics.

Daniel does not play the game well.

He survived his initial run-in with Frazier because being punished for calling for race reforms in the department -- even if he did call for the commissioner's head -- seemed too harsh. Months later, however, he made the dispute personal, calling Frazier a racist.

"Ron is not a politician," Watkins said.

"What got him into trouble -- he used the word racist. Had he talked to me, I would have given him different words, but with the exact same message. He has to know what the gray zone is and dance in and out of that."

Public relations doesn't come easily for Daniel, either.

The commissioner has a love-hate relationship with reporters. He will share more than most tight-lipped officers, does end runs around his public relations staff and returns many media inquiries himself. But he will sever a relationship without hesitation at a perceived slight or an article he dislikes or feels is inaccurate.

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