THE BALTIMORE Police Department's experiment with out-of-town commissioners has ended abruptly with the firing of New Yorker Kevin P. Clark. Mayor Martin O'Malley's choice of Baltimore native Leonard D. Hamm to head the agency makes sense right now for a department that has worked under three commissioners in four years. A well-liked former city police major who advocates a return to basics, Commissioner Hamm, 55, represents a stable, calming influence - for the department, which has undergone numerous changes at the top with each new commissioner; for the city, which is watching the murder rate climb toward 300; and for the mayor, who made fighting crime and knocking down that murder rate the No. 1 priority of his administration.
Commissioner Clark, a former narcotics chief from the Bronx, offered the city a familiarity with the New York style of policing championed by Mr. O'Malley and leadership on the narcotics front. And he was an African-American who would hold a powerful job in a majority-black city. He understood the dynamics of the drug trade and spoke passionately about its corrupting influence on the city. He worked hard.
But inside the department, Commissioner Clark remained an outsider whose management style didn't translate effectively. And when an argument with his fiancM-ie in May became the subject of a police investigation and newspaper headlines, the man Mr. O'Malley called the best police chief in the country was in trouble. Yesterday, Mr. O'Malley fired him, saying the domestic dispute had become a "distraction from the mission of crimefighting."
But Commissioner Clark also had become a distraction for the mayor. With every new homicide, the pledge made by Mr. O'Malley five years ago became a promise he couldn't keep. The homicide rate points up a signature failing of Mr. O'Malley's administration - the inability to hire and keep a competent, committed crimefighter at police headquarters. The series of commissioners also casts a shadow over Baltimore's claim of a steady decline in violent crime. The increasing homicide rate, for better or worse, becomes the thing for which Baltimore is remembered, overshadowing Mr. O'Malley's hard-fought accomplishments.
So now it's Lenny Hamm's chance to try to turn it around. Commissioner Hamm, a former city schools police chief who is expected to be named permanently to the post, displays a Baltimorean's affection for and loyalty to the city. He acknowledges a nervousness among the rank-and-file and a loss of faith in the department by the public. He recognizes the need to twin the "new style" of policing promoted by his predecessors with the "old style" that favors patrol work. He professes a willingness to work with others in the criminal justice community - a must in this environment. But more important, he projects a quiet confidence that lends credence to his assertion that the men and women of the department will work for him and with him. His success depends on it.