Next city police commissioner faces challenging benchmark

City leaders to begin national search for new police leader

May 05, 2012|By Peter Hermann and Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

However Baltimore's plain-spoken police commissioner is remembered, when he departs on the first day of August, he will leave his successor a challenging target.

The number 200.

That is the standard by whichFrederick H. Bealefeld III's successor will be measured. Under his watch, Baltimore recorded 196 homicides in 2011, breaking a symbolic barrier that eluded nine previous chiefs, all the way back to 1977.

Fairly or unfairly, the mayor and commissioner — along with the city as a whole — have been judged and have judged themselves on the annual body count. It is always a horrific-looking number, but in actuality a tiny percentage of crime.

City leaders and criminal justice experts fear that a new leader, even one promising to continue Bealefeld's strategies, will halt the momentum of near across-the-board crime decreases while imprinting his or her own ideological stamp on the force.

"The benchmark is now 200," said Bert F. Shirey, a retired deputy commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department with 37 years of experience. "The public and people who are paying the bills see this number as the bottom line. The new person coming in certainly doesn't want the number to go back up again."

Speaking about overall crime levels, CityCouncilmanWilliam H. Cole IV, said, "I think the bar is set. It's up to the applicants to understand that we now know where our new low can be as far as the crime rate goes, and we want to push below that."

On Friday, a day after announcing his retirement, Bealefeld used statistics as he spoke about his successes: "Minus seven, minus 17." Such tallies — 64 killings through April 4, compared to 71 in the same period last year, and 112 non-fatal shootings, compared to 129 last year — remain the barometer of city crime. They will be tough for Bealefeld's successor to match, or beat, whether he or she rises up from the ranks or is plucked from someplace else.

MayorStephanie Rawlings-Blakeplans a national search to replace Bealefeld as head of the 3,100-member police force, which has been under his stewardship for the past five years.

The unique challenge, according to Baltimore leaders, even those critical of the commissioner's tenure, is advancing a plan that has for the first time in decades led to a sustained drop in crime.

"It's going to be incumbent on the next person to continue that direction," said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement think tank in Washington that has helped Los Angeles and Chicago find chiefs.

"Some new chiefs come in and dismantle everything that a successful person has done," Wexler said, "but that would be stupid."

Still, he urged the mayor and community leaders to think carefully about "where the department is and where it needs to go. … What are the issues facing Baltimore in 2012? They might not be the same issues that faced Fred Bealefeld in 2007."

Bealefeld lasted longer than is typical of most big-city police chiefs, surviving a change at the top of City Hall, where consecutive mayors endorsed and embraced his crime plan.

Yearly declines in homicides, shootings, assaults and other crimes allowed leaders to proudly proclaim a notoriously dangerous city safer — even if many residents said their experiences didn't match the numbers. Those declines shielded Bealefeld from the impact of other problems in the department.

He survived a steady stream of misconduct and corruption cases that sent officers to federal and state prison, a fatal "friendly-fire" shooting of an officer, and numerous shake-ups in command. There were also revelations that many reported rapes were being dismissed by detectives who wrote them up as "unfounded," prompting an overhaul of the sex offense unit.

To the public, scandals come and go with the headlines, but safety remains a primary concern, local leaders say. In March, Bealefeld's new pick to lead Internal Affairs stood in front of residents inBelair-Edison, ready to field questions just as more misconduct was making news.

Nobody asked a single question of Grayling Williams, who was lured to Baltimore from the federal government to restore credibility in officer discipline. Instead, residents pestered patrol officers about a fight at a neighborhood school.

"You go to a community meeting and crime is the topic," said Cole. "They want to know, from the Police Department, what are they doing to stop whatever is going on and to make their day safer. At the end of the day, that's what it all boils down to."

What has helped Bealefeld slide through crises, Cole said, was his intolerance of bad behavior. For example, he fired a cop who berated and pushed a teenage skateboarder at the Inner Harbor, over the objections of his command staff.

Cole doesn't see any reason to change the city's crime-fighting strategy. "I think the blueprint the commissioner has laid out appears to be working," he said. "The numbers themselves indicate that."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.