Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy questioned the "integrity and credibility" of the city's police commissioner Tuesday afternoon, calling for an independent investigation into whether Frederick H. Bealefeld III has solicited votes for her opponent in the Democratic primary while on duty.
At a news conference in North Baltimore, Jessamy alleged that an interaction between one of her supporters and Bealefeld last month was an "overt action on the part of the police commissioner" to help elect "a rubber stamp of the police department."
She said an independent investigation "will establish whether our police commissioner is a person of truth and veracity, or not. … We need a police commissioner who is truthful and honest."
In a statement, Bealefeld said he "respectfully disagrees with the state's attorney's characterization of recent events" and denied that he had engaged in any inappropriate political activities. He said through a spokesman that an independent probe was not warranted but declined to comment further.
Jessamy's comments escalated her criticism of Bealefeld's support for her opponent in the Democratic primary, defense attorney Gregg Bernstein. Bealefeld placed campaign signs for Bernstein in the front lawn of his Southwest Baltimore home last week and said police needed a "true partner" in the city's crime fight.
The move was believed to be unprecedented by a top police official in Baltimore, and came after Bealefeld and Jessamy had appeared to enjoy a more cordial public relationship than his predecessors, who often sparred with her over policy.
But behind the scenes, tensions have been simmering, and Bealefeld has charged that prosecutors too often blame police and fail to accept responsibility when violent offenders evade harsh punishment. Through a spokesman, he said his support for Bernstein comes as a citizen and is in the "best interest of public safety."
Jessamy, a 15-year incumbent, has fired back, charging that Bealefeld's support of Bernstein was an attempt to evade accountability for police misconduct.
"It's very dangerous for a state's attorney to agree to be a rubber stamp, and that's what my opponent is running on," Jessamy said Tuesday. "He's going to be a rubber stamp for the Police Department. We don't want a police state in Baltimore City. We deserve better."
Asked for evidence that Bernstein would ignore police misconduct, she said that he "continues to tout the fact that I don't get along with the Police Department. That is inaccurate. Over the course of my term we have worked well," noting initiatives that she said helped police streamline police involvement in cases.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake defended Bealefeld, who at three years has served longer than any police commissioner in the past decade, and praised him as "an exceptional public servant dedicated to reducing crime and violence in Baltimore" who has "demonstrated the highest level of integrity and professionalism." But she cautioned that Bealefeld should steer clear of politics while on duty.
"I have made very clear that individuals in my administration are to be focused on governing and that no one is to engage in political activities while carrying out their official duties," Rawlings-Blake said. "I am confident that Commissioner Bealefeld will continue to serve with honor and distinction while working to reduce crime as he has done for 29 years as a proud member of the Baltimore Police Department."
City police union president Robert F. Cherry said Jessamy's comments were a deliberate attempt to create a distraction from the issues of the election.
"For Mrs. Jessamy to make blanket statements that Bealefeld's support of Bernstein is a rubber stamp for hiding misconduct is ludicrous," Cherry said. "He has revamped internal affairs and removed officers that he thought were engaged in misconduct. If there's one organization that knows that Fred Bealefeld doesn't stand for police misconduct, it's the F.O.P."
The Fraternal Order of Police has given money to Bernstein's campaign but has not decided whom — or whether — to endorse, Cherry said.
Bernstein said that the election was not about police misconduct, but effective prosecution. A relative unknown outside legal circles, he got a late start with his campaign and has been quietly trying to build support with small gatherings with voters and door-to-door efforts. His wife, Sheryl Goldstein, took a leave of absence from her role as Rawlings-Blake's top crime aide, a position in which she worked closely with Bealefeld on issues of criminal justice.