Parsing the top cop's comments

  • Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, left, stops by for a chat with officers Travis Ryckman, center, and Joseph Crystal.
Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, left, stops… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
April 04, 2010|By Peter Hermann peter.hermann@baltsun.com

A few weeks ago, 80-year-old Daisy Dawson challenged Baltimore's top cop to a fight for calling her grandson an "idiot." It didn't matter that authorities say her grandson had shot two police officers, who then returned fire and killed him.

"If I could meet the commissioner, I'd punch him in the mouth," she told me while sitting on a couch in her rowhouse, grabbing my arm for emphasis.

Two years earlier, the commissioner spoke out against a man as a dangerous leader of a gang responsible for 10 killings in East Baltimore's Barclay neighborhood. After the young man was gunned down in an alley in Charles Village behind an elementary school last month, his relatives said they were offended by the comments.

And a judge, apparently forgetting cameras were still rolling and a microphone was still on in an empty courtroom, mocked the commissioner's use of language. Sitting on the bench during a break last month, Baltimore Circuit Judge Gale E. Rasin put her elbows on her desk, rested her chin in her hands, shook her head while smiling and told a court employee: "He calls people idiots, the police commissioner. You know he's always talking about idiots - these people want to come downtown, blah, blah, blah."

The judge sounded incredulous, as if Frederick H. Bealefeld III's comments about idiots and morons were in some way hidden digs at the judicial system, a coded way of telling the public it had failed them and their police, a constant reminder that bad guys still roam city streets with guns and that he's the only one out there trying to put them away.

"I don't think it's appropriate for me to comment on that," Rasin told me when I reached her by phone seeking an explanation, after I had watched the recording of her courtroom performance. She apparently missed the sign hanging behind her, warning: "Notice: This courtroom is being recorded at all times."

Then, there's the matter of the officer who didn't appear in court to testify in a gun case. The officer was jailed by Rasin as a material witness, and police were outraged. Authorities attributed the officer's absence to a communication mixup, and they called her arrest unnecessary.

But Rasin, while court was in session, couldn't help note the irony of a city officer failing to appear in the very type of case Bealefeld has made the centerpiece of his crime-fighting strategy. Rasin noted that police are "very adamant to get guns off the street and 'bad guys,' or whatever the vocabulary the commissioner uses."

If the judge feels Bealefeld's sound-bite-perfect phrases - such as his favorite "bad guys with guns" - mock thesystem, then she turns the tables and allows a cop to go to jail to prove her point?Was this nothing more than a spitting match over rhetoric?

The commissioner's vocabulary is definitely getting attention.

"I think it's refreshing," said Gary McLhinney, a police union negotiator, a former city police union chief and police chief of Maryland Transportation Authority - and, perhaps more important, a former partner of Bealefeld's in an undercover federal drug task force in the early 1990s.

McLhinney said Bealefeld is now, as he was then, the same blunt-spoken police officer. If he thinks someone's an idiot, he calls him an idiot.

"Commissioner Bealefeld is a rank-and-file guy, and he speaks from the heart," McLhinney told me. "He's trying to do whatever he can to get people's attention. There's a lot of frustration in his comments about the problems of the past three decades."

Sometimes, Bealefeld's choice of words seems perfectly appropriate, such as when he said, "You don't get to act like a fool here," after drunken teens from Essex snatched Cal Ripken Jr.'s No. 8 statue from in front of Camden Yards.

But other times, his rhetoric seems oddly understated, such as calling the shooter of two of his officers an "idiot." In fact, his chief spokesman told me after learning of the grandmother's challenge, "I think there are many people who feel that 'idiot' and 'moron' doesn't go far enough."

So what is Bealefeld trying to accomplish?

Every police chief brings a personal style to the job. And they all know that speaking out has pitfalls. Every cop gets angry with judges for letting suspected criminals off or out on bail, and every cop gets angry with prosecutors for failing to demand that judges put everybody in prison.

But it's considered bad form for one guy in law enforcement to blast another guy in law enforcement, even though many of these relationships - such as cops arresting bad guys and prosecutors having to make sure the arrests hold up - have built-in tensions that serve as necessary checks, to ensure the right people are arrested and the right people go to jail. Prosecutors should question the cops, and judges should question everybody.

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