Baltimore's top prosecutor accused the city's police commissioner Friday of using the power of his badge to help her opponent in next month's primary
State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said in a statement that Frederick H. Bealefeld III has broken years of precedent with "overt actions … to influence the outcome of an election" — which she warned "can only lead to divisiveness and distrust in the community."
Jessamy said it was "unprecedented and inappropriate" for the city's top police officer to put a campaign sign on his lawn. Her campaign spokeswoman, meanwhile, said staff members have learned that Bealefeld, while in uniform, "approached some citizens, recruiting volunteers" for Gregg Bernstein's campaign.
Spokeswoman Marilyn Harris-Davis said Bealefeld asked city resident Billy Taylor, a Jessamy supporter, to meet with Bernstein.
Bealefeld's spokesman, Anthony Guglielmi, denied that the commissioner made any such requests while on duty. He confirmed that Bealefeld spoke with Taylor at an event but said that Bealefeld did not try to influence his vote or recruit him as a campaign worker. He said Bealefeld spoke with Taylor about Bernstein in detail only when he was off-duty.
Taylor, who supports Jessamy, said he met with Bernstein for lunch. "I don't know about if it's appropriate," he said. Of Bealefeld, he said, "We're friends, and he asked me to do that and so I did it."
This encounter underscores the complications of Bealefeld's endorsement of a candidate in the Sept. 14 Democratic primary, in which Jessamy faces her first serious challenge in eight years. The commissioner's job takes Bealefeld from crime scenes to City Hall, from the offices of legislators to the living rooms of community activists and into meetings with scores of elected and appointed public officials.
Every statement, critical or not, about a specific crime or about a law he wants to toughen, could be scrutinized against his now-public support for a candidate for a public office with whom he and his officers must work with every day.
The move by Bealefeld to put up a sign supporting Bernstein has propelled into public years of behind-the-scenes animosity and mistrust between the city's top appointed police official and top elected prosecutor. The leaders have often feuded over crime-fighting strategies and the quality of arrests and investigations.
Bealefeld has been critical when suspects arrested in crimes are found to have long arrest records but served little time, and Jessamy has repeatedly countered that her prosecutors are forced to accept lenient plea deals because police fail to build credible cases.
In her statement, Jessamy took a swipe at the chief, saying that "given the challenges facing Baltimore City, it is Mrs. Jessamy's hope that Commissioner Bealefeld will refocus his efforts on apprehending the perpetrators of crimes and assembling evidence to be presented in court and that he will leave the politics to others."
Guglielmi said Bealefeld considered the campaign sign carefully but concluded that "he has a right, just like each and every one of us has, to express his political views. Fred Bealefeld has the vantage point to the city's crime fight that no one of us has. He has a front-row seat, and he's made a decision to endorse a political candidate that he thinks would be in the best interest of public safety."
Warren A. Brown, a prominent defense attorney who is supporting Bernstein, said he finds Bealefeld's incursion into politics "refreshing" in an age that "so very often people are operating behind facades. Folks need to step out."
Brown, who considered running against Jessamy a decade ago but never filed, called Jessamy unprofessional for "constantly picking on the Police Department" and said "she expects her front-line prosecutors to go into court and convince juries to believe police officers when she goes out of her way to make police officers look bad."
Harris-Davis, Jessamy's campaign spokeswoman, said Bealefeld cannot separate his duties as the city's top officer from his rights as a private citizen, and that anything he does, in uniform or out, will be construed as Baltimore Police Department policy.
"He certainly as a private citizen has First Amendment rights, as do we all," she said. "However, it is our feeling that he is held to a higher standard."
Jessamy's accusation that Bealefeld recruited volunteers while on duty for Bernstein is difficult to confirm.
Taylor, who lives in West Baltimore and serves with Bealefeld on a board of a substance-abuse counseling agency, said he ran into the commissioner about two weeks ago in the studios of the WOLB radio station. He said Bealefeld told him, "I want you to do me a favor and meet with someone," but wasn't specific.