Bealefeld picked as commissioner

Police veteran's first challenge: city homicide crisis

October 05, 2007|By John Fritze and Sumathi Reddy | John Fritze and Sumathi Reddy,SUN REPORTERS

Choosing a well-respected local veteran over a prized out-of-town candidate, Mayor Sheila Dixon named Frederick H. Bealefeld III yesterday as police commissioner and charged him with tackling a homicide crisis that ranks Baltimore among the nation's most violent cities.

Backing the strategy of community-based crime-fighting developed by Dixon's administration, Bealefeld -- who has served as acting commissioner since July -- would become chief as the city remains on pace to exceed 300 homicides and as police morale has rebounded only slightly from extraordinary depths this summer.

Despite the challenges, the 26-year Police Department veteran confidently vowed to reduce crime while simultaneously stabilizing a department still reeling from turnover in recent years. Early indications suggest Bealefeld is already making limited progress on both fronts, and many rank-and-file officers said yesterday that they are pleased he will be in charge.

"What a police department needs is a very steady hand moving it in an affirmative direction," said Bealefeld, who is 45 and lives with his wife and two children in Harford County. "Police agencies don't respond very well to sports car maneuvering. You have to react to crime situations, but you have to have some long-term vision and dedicate yourself to that."

Bealefeld -- who started his career in the Western District, following his great-grandfather and grandfather into policing -- was selected by Dixon as acting commissioner to replace Leonard D. Hamm, who was asked to resign in July. Bealefeld was the deputy commissioner of operations at the time and was largely responsible for the department's day-to-day management.

As Dixon campaigned for a full term this summer -- and was repeatedly criticized by political opponents on crime -- she conducted a national search to fill the police job. She interviewed eight candidates, she said, including former Washington police chief Charles H. Ramsey, who oversaw a sharp drop in crime in the nation's capital before stepping down last year.

Dixon said she spoke with former Washington Mayor Anthony A. Williams and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley to discuss candidates. At one point, she said, Ramsey and Bealefeld were neck-and-neck for the job -- indistinguishable, in her words. Dixon said she chose Bealefeld because of his performance over the past several weeks.

There also appears to have been increasing sentiment that the correct move was to hire a commissioner from within the department -- in contrast to her predecessor, now-Gov. Martin O'Malley, who brought in police commissioners from other cities, especially in the early years of his tenure.

"I've had great confidence with what I saw," Dixon said of Bealefeld's past weeks as acting commissioner. "A thoughtful, experienced and decisive leader, Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld is up to the task."

Since July 20, Bealefeld's first day on the job, there have been 53 homicides, down from 65 during the same period last year, a police spokesman said. Shootings were down to 105 from 156 during that same period. Despite progress made in past weeks, overall year-to-date homicides are up 8 percent over last year, and shootings are up 11 percent.

"We will reduce that murder rate," Bealefeld promised. "We will."

When Dixon took office in January, she began steering the department away from its zero-tolerance approach, in which police aggressively targeted quality-of-life crimes in an effort to discourage larger crimes. In some neighborhoods, that approach had been met with criticism that police were being overly antagonistic with residents.

Offering few specifics, Bealefeld said he supports Dixon's general crime-fighting strategy as well as the use of foot patrols and the gun registry she recently signed into law. He said he does not intend to stray from the "solid, core strategy" that Dixon has put in place and said he will continue to rely on relationships with state and federal law enforcement agencies that she has worked to restore after years of tension.

He specifically named Anthony E. Barksdale, the acting deputy commissioner of operations, and Deborah A. Owens, acting deputy commissioner of the department's administrative bureau, as police officials he believes are furthering that mission.

As the Democratic primary campaign unfolded this summer -- and the police union negotiated a new labor contract -- morale within the department and rank-and-file officers' relations with the mayor's office seemed to be particularly poor. Since then, a new contract has been inked, and the head of the city's police union said yesterday that he supports Bealefeld for the job.

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