Top cop proud of rise from the ranks

October 05, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

At one point during the day in which he officially became Baltimore's top cop, Frederick H. Bealefeld III tapped his left wrist. Not his heart, not his head, but his wrist.

"This was my grandfather's watch," he said. "I always wear it on occasions like this."

The grandfather had been a police officer, one who walked the same beat around Greenmount and North for 25 years. The occasion was the grandson's promotion from acting to permanent police commissioner - whatever "permanent" means in a department whose chief seems to serve behind an ever-revolving door.

But in picking this generations-deep Baltimore cop to run the department, Mayor Sheila Dixon has gone with stability over change. She's opted for local over outsider, generational history instead of a clean break, up-through-the-ranks rather than department-jumper.

"I didn't miss a step," Bealefeld was proud to note of his 26-year rise up the ladder of the Baltimore force. "No one waved a wand and said, `You go from lieutenant to king.'"

After searching nationwide and interviewing the resume-rich and the well-traveled, Dixon went with the guy who's been here all along, hiding in plain sight.

The new commish comes off as a cop's cop, blunt-spoken and direct whether he's talking about how there are fewer "knuckleheads" in the department now, or calling criminals neither "suspects" nor "perpetrators" but simply "the bad guys." With his shock of silver hair and beaklike profile, he has the vigilant air of a hawk, ever on patrol no matter how many stars and bars he's added to his uniform over the years. And you sense that, despite his rise through the ranks, he retains the soul of what he calls "a three-striper," or sergeant, that front-line field leader.

Dixon said she interviewed eight candidates from across the country for the job before going with her "gut" and picking Bealefeld, whom she had appointed acting chief in July after firing his predecessor. That was Leonard Hamm, as hometown a guy as Bealefeld, but with a less out-there personality and the misfortune of holding the office at a time of a rising homicide rate and a campaign for mayor under way.

It was interesting to watch them together at City Hall yesterday, Bealefeld and Dixon, both having risen through their respective ranks and now, having both unloaded their "interim" titles, taking full charge. With controlling crime the No. 1 issue in town, their fates are intertwined - neither succeeds (or fails) without the other also succeeding (or failing). So it's a good thing that Dixon seems so comfortable with her pick, saying she sensed a kindred spirit in Bealefeld.

Several times, she repeated that she felt they shared the same "passion," "drive" and "energy."

For his part, Bealefeld pledged his fidelity to Dixon's crime plan and its focus on targeted enforcement, community engagement, the seizure of illegal guns and partnership with other law enforcement agencies.

He also indicated that there would be no major personnel changes on the horizon. "We have a very solid nucleus of people here," he said. "You're not going to see too many unfamiliar faces."

They talked about some dents they've made in reducing crime since Bealefeld took over on July 20 - 53 homicides from then until yesterday afternoon, compared with 65 over the corresponding time period last year; 105 nonfatal shootings over that span this year, 156 last year.

Who knows who or what is responsible for such statistical blips? It's probably no one thing and could be any number of things: from the intense focus crime received during an election year, to the pressure on Dixon to show some improvements if she wanted a term of her own rather than merely finishing out the one left behind when Martin O'Malley became governor, maybe the confidence the rank-and-file felt under Bealefeld's leadership, or the foot patrols or the gun seizures or the safe zones or the phases of the moon, for all we know.

Bealefeld said he takes "a part" of the credit for the recent gains, and whatever share is his, he's surely earned the right to show what he can do as the for-real chief.

"Most of us have been not in limbo, but in an acting capacity," he said of the department's command staff. "They were in the same netherworld that I was in ... `What's my status here going forward?'"

Now that that's clear, Bealefeld is making a bold promise - to make the city safer - and just begging to be judged on whether he lives up to it.

"You gotta judge me on the facts, folks," Bealefeld said.

There's little chance that he won't be.

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