Keep politics out of policing

May 20, 2001|By Barry Rascovar

RACIAL politics could end up killing Baltimore. Literally.

The current spectacle of an inept, misdirected City Council trying to dictate personnel policies to the city's police commissioner, based on the color of an officer's skin, sent a signal of meddling in an area that should be hands-off for politicians.

Hiring and firing in a quasi-military department as vital as the police department should be left to the commanding general -- Commissioner Edward T. Norris.

You can't win a war if politicians are dictating who will lead the police battalions into battle.

And you can't turn the city's law-enforcement agency into an old b'hoys network for friends of pols, or a fiefdom in which lawmakers dictate who gets top police jobs.

Yet that seemed to be the tenor of complaints last week from both African-American council members and their counterparts in the General Assembly.

Repeatedly, many of them complained about a "whitening" or a "lightening" of the police department's leadership. The numbers, though, indicate there's been a darkening of the department's ranks.

And while two black police leaders were replaced, so were two white commanders. Meanwhile, the most important post in day-to-day law-enforcement -- chief of patrol -- was taken away from a white commander and given to an African-American.

The rationale for these moves had to do with under-performance and incompetence that were undermining the department.

Critics, however, zeroed in on the replacement of two black commanders, not their serious missteps that hurt crime-fighting efforts.

These politicians were unwilling to concede that a professional law-enforcement officer, not an elected official, ought to be making the police department's hiring and firing decisions.

The notion that the City Council should have veto power over Mr. Norris' personnel moves is intolerable. If council members walk down this road, there's only one underlying motive -- forcing Mr. Norris to quit in disgust and then applying pressure for a black commissioner.

What a deplorable spectacle this has become. The city's homicide rate is once again on the rise. The folks being killed and robbed and raped are overwhelmingly black, not white.

Where's the council-manic furor over this injustice?

Voters spoke clearly when they elected Martin O'Malley as their mayor: The color of his skin didn't matter to them; what counted was his laser-like commitment to attacking Baltimore's unacceptably high crime rate.

But too many council members and state legislators still haven't gotten the message. It's more important to their future political campaigns to wave the flag of racism any time a black police commander is removed.

Sure, there's still plenty of racial injustice in our society. It's a sensitive issue, and rightly so. But what's that got to do with turning Baltimore's police department into a skilled crime-fighting force?

There's also been fears expressed that Mr. Norris might import commanding officers from New York City to help direct his beefed-up crime-fighting.

Yet prior fears that Mr. Norris' hiring would mean a rash of New York-style excessive-force abuses just haven't happened.

In fact, what this city may need is a batch of veteran law-enforcement commanders from other cities.

Baltimore's police department has been stripped of most of its inside talent by prior commissioners, both black and white.

Ron Daniel, Tom Frazier, Eddie Woods. ... they turned out to be sorely inadequate as the top cop. Good commanders couldn't take it. After a while, they got out: They took better-paying jobs in the counties or early retirement.

By the time Mr. Norris was named commissioner, the pool of talent in the city police department had been drained.

It takes time to rebuild a demoralized law-enforcement agency. Younger officers must prove their leadership skills and gain management experience. Meanwhile, why not import proven leaders from other big cities?

Winning the crime fight won't be achieved as long as police commanders think they can get politicians to pull strings for them and act as their protectors. That has happened too often in the past.

The only political appointment should be the mayor's choice of a police commissioner. If the commissioner doesn't perform well, he'll get the hook from the mayor soon enough. That's where the council can apply pressure if it is dissatisfied.

But the council cannot and should not try to block firings and dictate the skin color of high-level appointees. That's no way to decrease crime. It is, though, a sure way to lose the war against criminals in Baltimore.

Either through an oversight or my lousy proofreading, a prior column on Baltimore County Executive Dutch Ruppersberger contained an obvious error. Mr. Ruppersberger did not use campaign funds in his attempt to gain voter approval of a redevelopment bill, S.B. 509. The word "not" had been omitted. Oops.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

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