Bealefeld poised to lead

New police commissioner questions policies on drugs, arrests

November 19, 2007|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,sun reporter

The City Council is to vote tonight to approve Frederick H. Bealefeld III as Baltimore's 36th police commissioner since 1850, and the first under the administration of Mayor Sheila Dixon.

The 45-year-old began his law enforcement career a quarter-century ago in Baltimore and has worked under 10 commissioners.

With Baltimore on the verge of recording 300 homicides in a year for the first time since 1999, Bealefeld faces a daunting challenge. Violent crime, drugs, gangs and witness intimidation threaten to undermine recent improvements in public safety that have sparked a resurgence in many neighborhoods.

Here are excerpts from a 45-minute interview with Bealefeld, during which he questioned how the drug war is being fought and policies of predecessors that led to thousands of questionable arrests:

Fighting drugs: Can anyone in this country say the war on drugs has been a success? If they can, I really don't know who they are. ... We've had victories here and there. But have we solved the drug problem in America?

We can't be overwhelmed by the notion of drug enforcement. The fact of the matter is old strategies, a drug arrest, in the scheme of things, was ranked as high as some other arrests, because the problem was mounted so high on our radar screen. Drugs, drugs, drugs, drugs. So cops, a lot of these guys came through their careers thinking, "Man, I got to attack this drug problem ... " We can't do that and give burglars and car thieves and robbers a pass.

That's where we've not been very successful in the past. We've made this drug problem, this drug war, over top of everything else. I would trade a huge swath of those drug arrests for violent criminals, putting violent criminals in jail.

Violent crime: The suspect in a recent homicide case has a conviction in 1997 for attempted murder and a handgun violation. He got 10 years for it. I know he didn't do 10 years. We are not surprised by too many of these guys, in so much as they've had prior contacts with law enforcement.

You're dealing with a great degree of apathy, you're dealing with a great degree of people who have bought into this whole "stop snitching" culture. I mean, this really is ground zero for stop snitching, right?

Here's where I think Fred Bealefeld is different. You know, 105,000 people arrested in 2005. I mean, try to get your mind around that. In a city of 640,000 population, it's mind-boggling. Did we really accomplish a lot doing that? What we have to say, in partnership with everyone else in the system: We're focused on the catalyst for violence.

We're not going to overburden [Central Booking] with a whole bunch of arrests for arrests' sake. We're going be much more strategic about it, we're going to be much more focused. We're bringing ... these arrests because it's helping to solve the problem. The state's attorney's office, this is where we want to devote our energy. Judges and court commissioners, go through your lists, a guy who has a history of handgun violence, we want to get him off the streets.

Drug treatment: I can tell you this ... without trepidation: We need real investments - and there have been incremental investments - there needs to be real, real work on drug treatment in this city. That has to be done. And we need to come to grips with that. We need real treatment programs, and they have to be effective. That is as important as holding me accountable for arresting more drug offenders. It can't be one or the other

We can't lose sight of the single biggest thing affecting this city, and that is this culture of violence. We will do drug enforcement. We will look at murders. We will look at thefts. We will do that. But we have to move a comprehensive strategy on focusing on violent offenders. You have to admit there's a gang situation here, and then you have to develop strategies to move forward on that. You have to recognize there's a mindset about carrying guns in this city.

Police "stop and frisk" strategy, a tactic now curtailed after complaints it led to illegal detentions and thousands of unnecessary arrests that were never prosecuted: I want officers to engage people. You can't say, "I want you to increase stop and frisks," because stop and frisk is based on probable cause. ... The first step really is to get their rear ends out of police cars and on the streets talking to folks. We have to break out of this going to call to call to call.

The fact of the matter is we're handling over a million calls for service in a year. Over a million. If we're going to be effective, we can't just go and stamp out a fire.

Suspicions that crime is not being accurately reported: One perception right now is this whole notion of cops not taking reports, and it runs all the way from someone being lazy to people's belief that it's some kind systemic internal secret order to get erasers out and do away with crime.

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