A sign from Mr. Bealefeld

Our view: Baltimore's police commissioner will have to walk a fine line between his private views and public duties if he wants to play a role in next month's primary election

August 09, 2010

Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III's decision to break with tradition and publicly signal his support for a candidate in the city state's attorney's race by planting a sign on his front lawn raises thorny questions about free-speech rights and the appropriateness of appointed officials getting involved in electoral politics.

As The Baltimore Sun's Peter Hermann reported last week, Commissioner Bealefeld's very visible preference for former federal prosecutor Gregg Bernstein over incumbent Patricia C. Jessamy in the Sept. 14 Democratic primary has brought into the open years of behind-the-scenes ill-feeling and mistrust between the city's top appointed police official and its top elected prosecutor. The election will be the first time in nearly a decade that Ms. Jessamy faces a serious challenge to her 15-year tenure as prosecutor, and she has sharply criticized Mr. Bealefeld for injecting himself into the contest on the side of her opponent.

We must disagree, however, with Ms. Jessamy's suggestion that it is inappropriate for Mr. Bealefeld to express support for Mr. Bernstein by way of a yard sign. As a private citizen, he has every right to express his personal view of who would best protect the public's safety in Baltimore, and his neighbors should certainly be able to take into account the opinion of someone who has had first-hand experience with the criminal justice system. In a way, Mr. Bealefeld's openness about his misgivings about Ms. Jessamy is refreshing, given how much more often public officials find it expedient to conceal their views on contentious issues.

But neither do we fully agree with Mr. Bealefeld's position, expressed through a spokesman, that he is essentially free to engage in whatever political activities he chooses as long as he is off duty. Mr. Bealefeld has one of the highest-profile jobs in city government, and he must strike a careful balance between his public and private actions. A great deal has been made over whether on one or two occasions Mr. Bealefeld was wearing his official police uniform when he expressed support for Mr. Bernstein. But the issue goes beyond the appropriateness of his attire on any particular occasion.

What's more important is that Mr. Bealefeld, as a public figure, clearly distinguish his personal views as a private citizen from the official policies of the Baltimore City Police Department. That's a difficult enough path to walk even in normal circumstances, and it may be impossible in the charged atmosphere of a hotly contested political campaign. Because confusing the two in the public's mind could quickly erode confidence in the professionalism of the entire system, we would rather see Mr. Bealefeld refrain from any comments than might risk blurring that distinction.

Over the years, this page has stood consistently for an expansive reading of the First Amendment's guarantees, and for a vigorous defense of the rights of free speech and political association. Few rights are more precious than to be able to express one's views on the pressing political questions of the day without fear of retaliation from those who are targets of criticism.

That said, the police chief of a high-crime city like Baltimore is in a delicate situation. In order to be effective, he must work well with a wide variety of officials, including the city's top prosecutor, whomever that might be. Moreover, he must never create the impression that his personal views could potentially interfere with his professional conduct. That would be fatal for the department's reputation for integrity. For that reason, we hope never to hear Mr. Bealefeld give a public speech, for example, on Mr. Bernstein's behalf — whether he is wearing his uniform or not.

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