For Clark, Bronx acted as crucible

Police: Baltimore's new commissioner forged his approach to crime on the streets of his native New York --- halt the drug trade, and the rest will follow.

January 26, 2003|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

BRONX, N.Y. -- Kevin P. Clark drove through his old haunts yesterday, where he spent four years as commander in two of the most violent and crime-infested police precincts in New York City.

As he cruised through the Bronx in a Mercury SUV, Baltimore's new police commissioner combed the streets for criminals until he spotted a known drug dealer in a thick puffy jacket and a baseball cap standing alone on the sidewalk. Clark asked the man to come to his side of the street; the dealer refused.

"Come over here," yelled Clark, who crossed his wrists to indicate the man would soon be in handcuffs. When the man ignored the order and walked away, Clark shook his head and told two patrol officers to pick up the dealer later that day.

"He's a knucklehead," Clark said yesterday. "These drug dealers are urban terrorists."

Clark, a native of the Bronx, was a high-ranking New York police commander who specialized in narcotics work. He firmly believes that law enforcement agencies can reduce violence by curtailing the drug trade. By hassling dealers, gathering in-depth dossiers on them and arresting the dope peddlers for minor offenses, Clark says, he can drive them indoors. Do that and clear the corners, he says, and fewer people -- including dealers themselves -- will get shot and killed.

"There are homicides you can prevent and those you can't," Clark said in his first interview since being named Baltimore's top police officer.

"If you get them [drug dealers] off the street, they don't get shot in craps games or going to buy drugs. You don't have that guy driving by with a beef with somebody and opening fire out a window."

Expertise persuasive

Clark, 46, will officially join a department Feb. 3 that is aggressively targeting drug dealers and other criminals through a system called ComStat, a rigorous examination of crime patterns. But city officials have said that it was Clark's expertise in fighting the drug trade that persuaded Mayor Martin O'Malley to select the relatively obscure New York commander to succeed former Commissioner Edward T. Norris, who abruptly resigned last month to become superintendent of the Maryland State Police.

O'Malley and other city officials were also impressed that Clark had not only reduced crime in each of his commands, but also had won a reputation as a civic-minded supervisor who earned the respect of his troops. Yesterday, Clark declined to comment on what changes he might make to the city Police Department, but his work as a commander in New York suggests that he'll probably fine-tune, rather than overhaul, the city's police operations.

As Clark drove through the Bronx precincts he commanded in recent years, he pointed out neighborhoods that were once run by drug dealers. On one corner, he said, dealers felt comfortable enough to put up lawn chairs and sofas curbside. On another, they stood 20 deep.

He called the streets wending below high-rise apartment buildings "canyons and a target-rich environment for narcotics and shootings." Much of the Bronx a decade ago, he said, resembled neighborhoods of vacant rowhouses in East and West Baltimore. But things have changed in the Bronx. Crime is down, corners are clear, and much of the area resembles stable parts of Baltimore, he said.

A thick man who lifts weights and speaks in quick sentences, Clark juggled three cellular phones as he spoke of his love for police work. He has few hobbies, he said, besides staying in shape and watching a little television. Much of his time, especially as a precinct commander, was spent in the office or the street or in community meetings.

"This thing takes everything you have," he said.

And Clark felt he shouldered an extra burden of responsibility because he grew up in a two-story red-brick rowhouse in the same precinct he would later command, the 47th, one of the roughest and most crime-ridden in the city.

Many of his childhood friends joined the police force; others went to prison. "Some are still there, I'm sure," he said.

The son of a police officer who patrolled Harlem, Clark always wanted to join the New York Police Department. "I thought cops were heroes, superheroes, man," the new commissioner said.

Clark, who graduated from Mount St. Michael's High School in 1974, went to Iona College and left after two years to earn a living.

Although his father preferred that he do something other than police work, Clark joined the NYPD in 1981.

"I was looking forward to him excelling in other areas," said the new commissioner's father, Melvin Clark, 73. "I knew the job and the problems of police work. But it tends to be a family thing."

A quick rise

Clark rose quickly through the ranks, working jobs from foot patrol officer and member of a violent crimes task force to internal affairs lieutenant and precinct commander.

Clark says he has been successful because his parents and neighborhood elders were demanding. "My father was a different type of man," he said. "He was tough, that post-World War II generation of tough men."

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