Executive decisions

April 22, 2003

COMMISSIONER Kevin P. Clark, who was confirmed last month, is Baltimore's sixth permanent or acting police chief since September 1999. During that turmoil, more than a dozen deputy commissioners and colonels were ousted or retired, along with countless majors. The bottom line: Proven command experience is in woefully short supply on the city's 3,300-member force.

This is why Commissioner Clark ought to reexamine the way command talent is nurtured and trained. A good start would be for him to revisit the 1994 decision to abolish captains as the lowest rung on the appointed command ladder.

That move did streamline the department's cumbersome structure. But it also removed a useful rank that had tested promising officers' executive abilities and readiness for higher appointments. With that seasoning tool gone, an officer who was a mere lieutenant in 1997 could rise to become the acting commissioner in just five years, as actually did happen.

Such comet-like trajectories were quite common and produced a mixed bag. Thus, among majors on the force are men and women who have not served as district commanders, according to Commissioner Clark. In an interview, he promised to change that by rotating such commanders to districts.

"I want street-type leaders," he explained. "District to me is one of the premium jobs."

In order to better identify promising talent, he recently asked majors to vote on lieutenants they think are ready for promotion. The results of the ballot will be added to other factors, such as performance evaluations and interviews, in measuring candidates.

The commissioner also said he wants to introduce an executive development curriculum at the Police Academy for all upper ranks, starting with lieutenants. The purpose is to improve their skills in legal, personnel and media matters as well as give them a better understanding of the ComStat process.

Those weekly sessions analyze crime data from nine police districts and are the department's prime management tool. On the basis of trends and shifts detected, top commanders make decisions about deployment and strategies.

Command preparation remains among the soft spots of the police department, despite repeated efforts to improve the situation over the years, and despite the presence of the Johns Hopkins Police Executive Training Program here.

Indeed, training ought to be among Commissioner Clark's top priorities, particularly because the police department's rank and file is increasingly young and unseasoned.

It is only with skillful commanders that high standards and professionalism can flourish.

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