Back in 1998 Thomas Frazier, then chief of the Baltimore Police, was invited to testify before the U.S. Senate to share his perspective on how to most effectively improve public safety.
“I speak very confidently for the major city police chiefs who in a conference a week ago endorsed the position that child care, early child care, before school care, and after school care, were really keys to crime prevention,” Frazier told the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee.
Today Frazier is the court appointed compliance director of the city of Oakland’s police department. Frazier is tasked with implementing whatever reforms are necessary to ensure that the OPD carries out a public safety mission without violating the civil rights of the city’s residents. The department has been bogged down and unable to comply with federally mandated reforms for over a decade stemming from systematic civil rights abuses perpetrated by numerous officers. Over this same time-frame, OPD has come to consume more than 40 percent of Oakland’s budget, crowding out other programs, including youth and children’s services.
Oakland Mayor Jean Quan’s budget proposal for the next two years proposes a major cut to early child care. The cut results from a reduction of $1.7 million in federal funds due to the budget sequester orchestrated by the Obama administration and Republican members of the Congress. Mayor Quan and the Oakland City Administrator’s proposal is to leave this hole mostly empty, even though the city expects to collect millions in new revenues over the next two years from an improving real estate market and increased sales and other taxes.
Oakland’s budget proposal allocates most of these funds to the police department for the training and hiring of new officers. The new cops presumably will execute the crime fighting plan currently being developed by William Bratton and Robert Wasserman, two well-known former chiefs who advocate zero-tolerance policies, stop and frisk, and similar aggressive tactics developed during the 1990s war-on-crime model of policing.
Here’s how the cut to Head Start is described in the budget proposal:
“This will require reducing staff positions, the number of days of service at Head Start and Early Head Start sites, and eliminating 102 half day classroom slots for new families (closing the San Antonio CDC site that services 68 families and reducing Eastmont Town Center by 34 families, when there are already 396 families on the waiting list for these slots). The FY 2013-2015 budget proposal includes backfilling with the General Purpose Fund $184,000 of lost federal funding, which could sustain one part day classroom at Eastmont Town Center for 34 families ($114,000) and restore one Family Advocate ($70,000) to support the parents and siblings of Head Start children.” (p. A-4, 2013-2015 Proposed Budget)
Today Thomas Frazier avoids the limelight. He declined interviews during and after his investigation of OPD’s conduct during the Occupy Oakland protests, during which OPD repeatedly violated policies the department had agreed to under the terms of the federal Negotiated Settlement Agreement. Frazier keeps a low profile, choosing instead to focus on implementing change behind the scenes.
Still, Frazier’s opinions about how to best improve public safety can be gleaned from his past statements, and his policy record.
Frazier’s testimony to the Senate over a decade ago focused on the socioeconomic determinants of crime. According to Frazier, crime in Baltimore during his tenure was the outcome a long, historical process of de-industrialization, job losses, and disinvestment in the community. Frazier identified inequality and the creation of a privileged upper-class, and an impoverished working class with little mobility as the root of Baltimore’s violence:
“Let me paint the picture of a post-industrial city. Twenty-five years ago when Baltimore was fully employed and 925 thousand people lived in the city, we had an industrial economy. In an industrial economy you have a jobs pyramid. We have your well educated managerial at the top, union and manufacturing jobs in the middle, service sector jobs at the bottom. As right sizing, down sizing, all those things occur, your social economics change. If you’re computer literate and well-educated, there are more jobs for you at the top. The union and manufacturing jobs are severely diminished. There are more service sector jobs at the bottom. Our jobs pyramid has turned into a jobs hourglass. For a police chief that’s a recipe for civil disorder.”
“Our middle class is gone. We are stratified economically,” the chief concluded.
So how did Frazier respond to this crisis as the top cop in what was then America’s most violent city? Frazier advocated a well-funded and staffed police force, but repeatedly told politicians in Baltimore and Washington D.C. that without investments in social and economic programs to reduce inequality, there would be little change in crime rates, no matter how many cops were put on patrol, and no matter the aggressive tactics they were urged to use.
Instead of waging a war on drugs, Frazier told his cops to de-emphasize possession and use of drugs as crimes – even though he firmly opposed decriminalization proposals floated by then Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke.
Instead of adopting stop and frisk, hot spot policing, and zero tolerance tactics that were being implemented in other big city departments, Frazier advocated the community-oriented policing model which is based first and foremost around having officers who are respected by the communities they work in, and who do much more than simply profile, stop, and arrest targeted populations. It was a policing philosophy that set Frazier apart during the war on crime-era that raged through the 1990s, and from other top cops like Bratton.
Frazier departed Baltimore upon the election of Martin O’Malley. O’Malley, a Democrat, and technocratic city manager, ran on a zero-tolerance platform that required a dramatic boost to police spending and staffing levels. O’Malley dissed Frazier when the latter took a job at the justice department. A reporter asked what O’Malley thought of Frazier’s promotion; O’Malley said “sic semper tyrannus” – the meaning of which translates “death to tyrants.”
A press report from 1999 described O’Malley’s platform as the same “strategy embraced by cities such as New York”:
“The plan has five points that include giving police civil citation powers to keep lesser crimes out of courts. The plan also calls for prosecutors to charge suspects, allowing police to get back on the streets more quickly after an arrest. Other antidotes include using minimum mandatory sentencing to keep repeat offenders behind bars and placing a judge in the central booking center for swifter justice.” (“MD: Mayoral Hopefuls Offer Cures For High Murder Rate,” The Bulletin’s Frontrunner, July 27, 1999)
Frazier’s now forgotten Senate testimony, coming near the end of his career as a big city cop, was unique in that it focused on police work that sounds more like social work. Of the Police Athletic Leagues he set up across Baltimore, Frazier told the Senate:
“We know that we have to provide services for kids from seven to seventeen. That is a population who is at risk. That is, in the older end of that, our offenders. Those are the kids that need an opportunity to make good life decisions. We know that we have to provide services from two in the afternoon till ten at night. I would love to see schools go till four o’clock and we’d run PAL centers four till mid-night. Because then we have a safe space with positive activities and good role models, we put our very best men and women police officers in there to be the role models for these kids. Now what has the result of that been? In our center that has been the center in operation the longest, about two and one-half years now, the kid’s grade point average went from 66 to 81.”
And per the main measure by which police chiefs are judged, the crime rate, Frazier noted that: “Crime in that neighborhood went down 42 percent the first year, and it can’t go down 42 percent every year after the year before. It’s holding in the 30′s. That neighborhood has become a neighborhood of choice.”
In the current budget proposal for Oakland, most of the changes in spending levels for parks and recreation, libraries, human services, are reductions, transfers, and eliminations that cut budget resources for these city functions.
Akin to Baltimore under Frazier’s watch, Oakland has relatively lax attitudes toward the possession of marijuana – indeed the city has earned considerable tax dollars by regulating pot shops.
But the presence of Bratton and Wasserman as advisors to Oakland’s City Council and Mayor indicates that the city’s leaders are looking to adopt zero-tolerance strategies, the sorts of which Frazier steered away from years ago in Baltimore.
How all this will translate into policy now that Frazier is effectively running OPD remains to be seen.