Integrity, consistency

March 04, 2005

THE TUMULT and scandal surrounding Mayor Martin O'Malley's previous police commissioners argue for a sensible, stabilizing figure to lead the 3,200-member force. Leonard D. Hamm doesn't have the flash of his predecessors or their New York pedigree. But we've had enough supersize egos and big talkers who were more familiar with the Bronx than Belair-Edison. Baltimore needs a police chief with a single-minded focus on the violence corrupting the city. And Mr. Hamm's sincere ambition appears to be to make his hometown a safer place to live, engage its citizens in the fight and accord them the respect and service they deserve. For those reasons, the City Council should confirm his nomination as police chief.

Lenny Hamm's plain-spoken, affable manner will serve him well in a criminal justice community often beset by finger-pointing and feuding. His Baltimore roots, 22 years as a police officer and participation in the Greater Baltimore Committee's leadership program afford him a place in squad rooms, community meetings and corporate offices.

But the Police Department Mr. Hamm inherited is not the agency he left in 1996. Then, murders totaled a staggering 331 for the year and a controversial rotation policy had eroded the ranks of veteran investigators. The murder rate kept that numbing pace through 1999, when Mr. O'Malley won election on a get-tough-on-crime platform. But the changing faces at police headquarters have cost the city consistency and continuity in its crime-fighting effort.

Mr. O'Malley's first police chief lasted weeks. The next two offered the experience of New York's results-producing, computer-driven enforcement strategy, but neither had staying power. Edward T. Norris, a computer-savvy organizational guy, led an impressive decline in the homicide rate. But hubris made a felon of him and a fool of his supporters. Kevin P. Clark, a street-smart operational guy, focused on shutting down the drug trade. But troubles at home and his micromanagement cost him his job.

Now comes Mr. Hamm. A past bankruptcy raised some questions, but supporters attest to his integrity. Leadership is the critical attribute. Mr. O'Malley's dismissive attitude toward the state's attorney and city judges compromised his past police chiefs, whether he wants to admit it or not. As acting commissioner, Mr. Hamm has tended to those bruised relationships as he must: The best police force in the country couldn't safeguard a city without cooperation from its criminal justice partners.

Mr. Hamm's decision to focus on a handful of violent areas in the city is a promising strategy because it targets those most responsible for the worst crime. His management team -- returning senior officers and bright up-and-comers -- will carry it out. But, as Mr. Hamm said, "To ultimate authority attaches ultimate accountability." And he will be held to that.

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