Baltimore police walking fine line in state's attorney campaign

Commissioner put up sign; spokesman appears in ad for Jessamy challenger

August 24, 2010|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

Twelve years ago, the newly elected Anne Arundel County executive fired her police chief for allowing on-duty officers to appear in print ads for the incumbent she had defeated.

A year later, in 1999, a top Baltimore police commander called it "personally distasteful" when uniformed, off-duty officers appeared in a campaign television ad for the mayor's opponent.

In the Arundel case, an ethics panel ruled that the defeated county executive had abused his office by using police in his ads. In the city case, the officers were speaking on behalf of the union, but the department worried the nuance would be lost on residents.

What a difference a decade makes.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III put a campaign sign in the front yard of his house supporting Gregg Bernstein's bid to unseat State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy. He took the sign down, but his message remains: The city's top cop has taken sides in the race for top prosecutor.

And now, one of the police department's spokesmen appears at the tail end of Bernstein's first television commercial.

Detective Kevin Brown was off duty and is dressed in a generic uniform with a patch that says only "police." He doesn't give his name, nor does he speak. The image is Bernstein chatting with a random cop.

Only this isn't any cop. This cop gets television time. He is one of the public voices of the department, and he's tacitly endorsing a candidate by appearing in an attack ad that blames Jessamy for failing to protect a family who perished in a firebombing after calling police on drug dealers.

Police chiefs everywhere serve at the pleasure of their political bosses.

"I would not get involved in campaigns," said former New York police commander and Baltimore County Police Chief Cornelius J. Behan. "I wouldn't go to a fundraiser. I would instruct my officers to not take sides. That isn't always very popular for the people in power. They want help by the people who work for them."

Behan, who is 86, spent 16 years heading the Baltimore County department, and before that, he spent three decades in New York, retiring as chief of patrol. In the late 1960s, he was one of the first commanders approached by Frank Serpico, the detective who uncovered systemic corruption on the New York force and whose story was turned into a popular movie.

"Our job is to enforce the law," Behan said. "We're about remaining neutral, no matter what we feel. We have to perform with as much dignity and lack of rancor as we can."

David B. Mitchell, chief of the University of Maryland police, said that he did no more than attend fundraisers for his bosses, but he always appeared in a suit and tie instead of a uniform. The former state police superintendent and Prince George's County police chief is developing a course for the Johns Hopkins University on the politics of public safety.

The chief said that typically six months before an election, his elected bosses would start showing up at news conferences announcing major arrests. "Then it would be from his staff, 'He's running for office,'" Mitchell said. But when asked to show up at a fundraiser in uniform, "I said no, absolutely no."

Baltimore police have rules governing the mixing of politics and crime-fighting: "No member of the Department shall publicly criticize or ridicule the official action of any member of the department, public official or judge."

A city police spokesman defended Brown's appearance in the ad by noting that he, like Bealefeld, was off duty, on his own time, and exercising his free speech rights. But police are required to maintain a certain level of professional conduct even while off duty, and there is no escaping that both Brown and Bealefeld are cops in influential positions actively supporting a candidate for public office.

The support for Bernstein extends into the mayor's office. Deputy Mayor Christopher Thomaskutty displayed a campaign sign in his city rowhouse window and a forthcoming Bernstein print ad features another mayoral aide.

What happens on Sept. 14 when the Democratic primary is over? The Baltimore Police Department will be left with either a city prosecutor its top commanders actively tried to oust from office or a city prosecutor its top commanders promoted.

"Depending on how the election turns out, this could be a long four years," Mitchell said.

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