Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III announced his resignation Thursday, ending a 31-year career on the force that included overseeing a steep decline in the murder rate — but left him exhausted by the pressures of the job.
His departure — scheduled for Aug. 1 — stunned some city officials and triggered a nationwide search for a new leader to run the nation's eighth-largest police department.
"While I am saddened to announce his retirement, I respect his decision to retire after decades of service to spend more time with his family," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said in a statement. "I know he loves the job and was proud to serve with honesty and integrity for these many years."
Several top city police officials could be in the running for the job, which promises to be one of the mayor's most important and toughest Cabinet-level picks.
As commissioner, Bealefeld won over residents with his folksy style and his homespun colloquialisms, targeting "bad guys with guns" and calling criminals "morons" and "knuckleheads." He fought hard to transform the 3,100-member force into a more professional crime-fighting organization, instituting an intensive training program despite gripes from rank-and-file officers.
But a parade of departmental scandals dominated headlines and overshadowed his efforts. Sixteen officers were convicted in a kickback scheme involving a towing company, an off-duty officer killed an unarmed Marine during a bar fight, and an officer was convicted of dealing drugs from a police station parking lot.
Bealefeld did not speak to reporters Thursday, but in an interview late last year, he cited the strains of the job, singling out the Select Lounge shooting, in which officers mistakenly killed a plainclothes colleague. He also noted some personal losses: the deaths of his father and of a close friend on the force.
"It's been a very, very difficult year," the commissioner said in that interview. He referred to what he feels are his most important accomplishments — pushing the number of homicides under 200 in 2011, the fewest in three decades, and targeting police corruption.
The drop in homicides came even as his officers cut the number of arrests from more than 100,000 in 2005 to about 45,000 that year, which Bealefeld saw as vindication of his community-oriented style over the much-maligned zero-tolerance policing strategy of his predecessors.
Bealefeld's departure in August will roughly coincide with his 50th birthday, and he has vowed to help in the transition.
Also announcing her resignation Thursday was Sheryl Goldstein, the head of the mayor's criminal justice office and a confidante of Bealefeld's.
He told the mayor of his decision over lunch on Wednesday at Jimmy's restaurant in Fells Point, after they had appeared to announce the addition of surveillance cameras in Northeast Baltimore. City Hall sources said the mayor urged Bealefeld to reconsider, but after speaking with his family, he made his final decision Thursday.
According to a department spokesman, Bealefeld informed his staff at a weekly crime meeting, expressing his gratitude "for what you do every day. ... Some of you have saved my life, many of you have made me a better man, a better person, and all of your have made so very proud,"
He walked out to a standing ovation.
Bealefeld, whose salary was $194,815 and who will draw an annual pension of at least $140,000, led the department for five years, an unusually long time in the world of big city police chiefs, where politics and crime often are a volatile mix. It's the longest tenure in Baltimore since Donald D. Pomerleau was chief from 1966 to 1981.
"Commissioner Bealefeld has been a great public servant for the people of Baltimore throughout his entire career in the Baltimore Police Department and we owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude," the mayor's statement said.
City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said he was "flabbergasted" to learn of Bealefeld's retirement. "I talked to him about it a month ago, and he said he wasn't going anywhere. And then today the mayor calls and says he's going to retire," Young said.
Young said that after a rocky start, he developed a deep respect for Bealefeld. In 2007, Bealefeld ordered Young, then an East Baltimore councilman, to be escorted out of a crime meeting at police headquarters after he questioned the validity of police statistics.
"I think he has done a good job leading the Police Department," Young said. "Murders were down. Overall crime was down. I was impressed with his interactions with communities. I went on some of those community-led cop walks. He was very down-to-earth."
Young said that he hoped the mayor would choose a new commissioner from the department, but he declined to name possible successors. Among the most experienced in the department are deputy commissioners Anthony Barksdale and John Skinner, and Col. Jesse Oden.