Report calls for police changes

Past strategies condemned for raising violence, suspicion

`Justification for lost faith'

April 04, 2000|By Peter Hermann and Gerard Shields | Peter Hermann and Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley unveiled yesterday a much-anticipated blueprint for fighting crime that concludes past policing strategies contributed to violence and public hostility and suspicion.

"The persistence of high crime has undermined the public's confidence in the Baltimore Police Department," the 152-page report by a team of consultants concludes. "And there is justification for this lost faith."

The report was released as city government sources said O'Malley is getting closer to naming Edward T. Norris, a former New York police commander hired as deputy chief in January, as his choice for commissioner.

O'Malley is moving quickly in the wake of the resignation Thursday of Commissioner Ronald L. Daniel, hoping to head off growing public worry that the consultants' report calls for police to use draconian tactics at the expense of civil liberties. The report's release and a series of community meetings are intended to allay concerns.

Last night, tensions ran high during a standing-room-only meeting of about 800 people at Unity United Methodist Church in West Baltimore, as speakers overwhelmingly called for Norris to return to New York.

Daniel has declined to comment on why he resigned, other than to say he had no input with the consultants. Some public officials and many residents have expressed fears that Daniel left over disagreement with police strategies.

But nowhere does the report mention aggressive police tactics. Rather, it calls for a change in attitude as well as technology -- officers focused on making the city safer and using computer-generated statistics to deploy as crime happens.

The report says officers should be moved from desk jobs and programs such as the Police Athletic League and put into patrol cars, and hundreds of vacant positions should be filled through accelerated hiring.

"For the first time in years, the Baltimore Police Department will hold itself accountable for measurable impact on crime, disorder and public fear throughout every city neighborhood," it says.

Among the findings:

In a survey of officers -- in which 80 percent of the 3,200-member force responded -- 23 percent said they believed that more than a quarter of the department "is involved in stealing money or drugs from drug dealers."

Many residents interviewed suspect officers are complicit in the drug trade because dealers are "so visible in their neighborhoods." And many people, particularly young black males, felt intimidated and unfairly targeted by police who routinely use small gatherings as justification for a roust.

More than 80 percent of the officers surveyed said that their own disrespect of people "causes unnecessary escalation of force," and half those interviewed believed officers did not have the verbal or tactical skills to defuse such situations.

The report is sweeping in scope and criticisms. It calls for quick action by police to target drug dealers and leaves virtually no aspect of the force untouched in its recommendation for reform.

The corruption charge leveled by officers against themselves needs to be immediately investigated, the consultants said. They linked residents' complaints of unfair treatment to a lack of police training.

If the consultants' report is a true reflection of the city force, Norris, named acting commissioner Friday, will have a daunting challenge to remake the department and fulfill O'Malley's campaign promises to cut crime and homicides.

The report found a internal cultural problem that has hampered crime-fighting efforts: patrol officers and supervisors confused over their mission and what is expected of them.

Instead of working toward one goal, the report said officers are ingrained with values of "individual survival, group loyalty, frustration and resentment as needs and expectations have gone unfulfilled."

O'Malley said he released the report to gain public confidence.

"I felt that it is critical for the public to see and understand our plan of action for this Police Department," O'Malley said yesterday. "The fundamentals of this plan have saved countless lives in New Orleans and Newark, and it will save lives in Baltimore."

Norris, who is white, implemented New York's aggressive policing plan, which is credited with reducing crime but blamed for sanctioning abuse. Many residents in Baltimore's depressed, minority neighborhoods have expressed a desire for a black commissioner who understands their complaints about harassment from law enforcement.

Talk show host Larry Young used his morning radio show yesterday to plug Col. Barry W. Powell, the city's highest-ranking black police official, as the department's next leader.

But sources said Powell has privately backed Norris, and City Council President Sheila Dixon said Powell "is interested in being a deputy commissioner and I support him. I think that he can be a great resource to us with the distrust in the community."

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