A fight on many fronts

  • Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, center, tells Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake (back to camera) what proposed cuts would do to his department. "We estimate it would take 10 years for the city to recover from a blow like that," Bealefeld said.
Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, center, tells… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
April 01, 2010|By Justin Fenton | justin.fenton@baltsun.com | Baltimore Sun reporter

Frederick H. Bealefeld III strides into a classroom at the Gunpowder State Park firearms range, his back still stiff from a night of adult-league ice hockey, and stands before an entire shift of Southern District police officers, seated in rows, who are about to embark on a month's worth of training and instruction to sharpen their skills.

As tough crowds go, this should be a layup for Bealefeld, a 28-year veteran of the Baltimore City Police force and a self-described "damn good drug cop."

But Bealefeld launches straight into a defense of his Diamond Standard training program, determined to convince the array of veteran and rookie cops before him that he hadn't brought them here to waste their time.

"I understand cops a little bit, and you know what you do? You say, ‘I hear Bealefeld about his training. I hear all this mess. But he'll be gone in a minute. I'm just going to keep doing what I do.' Right?" asked Bealefeld, a blunt-talker whose bloodline counts several beat cops from the city force.

"Well I'm here to tell you there's a better way."

Almost three years into his job as city police commissioner — approaching the expiration date for his predecessors the past decade — Bealefeld is still defending himself. And not just to his fellow cops, who've seen enough drive-by commissioners and half-baked policing strategies the past few years to be skeptical of anyone with stripes on their sleeves.

The tougher crowd is the 635,000 residents of Baltimore, whose city remains one of the most violent in America despite having less deadly crime than it was before the Southwest Baltimore native took over as its top policeman.

Each new week sees Bealefeld again taking to the airwaves, decrying the latest brutal or spectacular crime and chastising suspects with his trademark colloquialisms, calling them "morons," "idiots," "knuckleheads," or often "bad guys with guns." After two policemen were shot last month, his comments denouncing the suspect — who was killed by the officers — prompted the 80-year-old grandmother of the suspect to declare she wanted to "punch him in the mouth."

More recently, Bealefeld's been forcefully defending his agency against proposed budget cuts that he calls "unconscionable."

Homicides are at a 20-year-low in Baltimore, and continue to fall this year along with an overall decline in gun violence. And yet the police commissioner — who might be the most successful in a decade, if statistics mean anything — is standing before groups of cops, or addressing the public at neighborhood functions or on newscasts, struggling to convince them all that their city is slowly improving, not spiraling into chaos.

"It's going to take a while [to change perceptions], because there's been a mountain of energy going the other way," Bealefeld, 47, said. "But while I'm here, man, I'm going to work my ass off to try to tip it back."

Swift rise to the top

When he joined the Baltimore Police Department in 1981, dropping out of Anne Arundel Community College after a broken collarbone dashed his hopes of earning a lacrosse scholarship, Bealefeld preferred working the streets as a drug cop to pursuing a leadership position. He was following in the footsteps of his grandfather, who once walked a beat along Greenmount Avenue, and a great-uncle, who was killed in the line of duty.

He appeared primed for a quick ascent, however. By age 22, he had passed the department's sergeant test, and he is believed to be the youngest person in the department's modern history to earn such a distinction.

"He was more thoughtful and had a better grasp of what was going on than anybody else I talked to," said Adam Walinsky, a former top aide to Robert F. Kennedy who came to Baltimore in the 1990s to develop a federal police development program. "He really understood [modern-day policing.]"

When Bealefeld's climb to the top began, it was remarkably quick, taking him from major to chief of detectives to deputy commissioner in slightly more than two years. In 2007, as then-Commissioner Leonard Hamm grappled with soaring murder rates, police officials say Bealefeld began essentially running the department. And when Mayor Sheila Dixon removed Hamm, Bealefeld became interim commissioner.

Initially reluctant to pursue the commissioner's job, Bealefeld quickly warmed to it and began forming a tight circle of confidantes. One of the first ideas they had was to further distance the department from the zero-tolerance strategy implemented under former Mayor Martin O'Malley.

They couldn't declare war on everybody anymore, he said. But this wasn't about easing off, either. It had to be a targeted approach, identifying key individuals responsible for the city's violence, and getting in their faces to jack them up over open warrants or a probation violation.

"They know who these guys are," Bealefeld said of the city's police officers. So he told them: "Go and drop a bomb on their head."

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