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Editorial: Big shoes to fill for police commissioner’s replacement

Baltimore is losing its police commissioner. And what a loss it will be.

Outgoing Baltimore City Police Commissioner Fredrick Bealefeld

Frederick H. Bealefeld III is retiring Aug. 1. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the commissioner, who is 49 and has been with the department for 31 years, had decided that this was a good time for him and his family to make the move.

And that’s about all she has said, except that she will be moving on to find a replacement with the requisite national search, seeking the best and the brightest, etc.

What’s going on here?

The position of police commissioner is as important and as sensitive as it gets in city government. Just ask previous mayors and police commissioners how much heat they felt when Baltimore was known as the nation’s homicide capital.

Where do you think David Simon got his material for his highly acclaimed television series “The Wire”? You remember those shows, Madame Mayor – they’re the ones that still make Baltimore civic and political leaders cringe as they argue that the drug-infested, murder-happy city of the HBO series does not depict the Baltimore of today.

The good news is that they have a good point, and Mr. Bealefeld’s tenure as police commissioner has provided much of the evidence they cite to show improvement in crime-fighting.

On balance, the commissioner’s five years in office have been highly successful. His crackdown on “bad guys with guns” has shown stellar results. Murders last year fell below 200 for the first time in decades. Violent crime in general was down.

Embarrassing as the police towing scandal was, Mr. Bealefeld moved decisively to address it head-on, seeking FBI help in the investigation and personally collecting the badges of 17 police officers before they were taken away in handcuffs.

He also hired the Department of Homeland Security’s former head of counternarcotics to lead the police department’s anti-corruption division.

“He’s personally committed to doing everything he can to hold accountable corrupt police officers in order to change the culture of the organization,” says Rod J. Rosenstein, U.S. attorney for Maryland.

So why is this police commissioner, arguably at the top of his game in a critically important job, stepping down?

The short answer is we don’t know. But Mr. Bealefeld is one of a number of high-level city officials who have departed recently (the mayor will soon have her third chief of staff in as many years) amid troubling reports of internecine wrangling behind the scenes in City Hall.

Yet there is some encouraging news even in the midst of this. The mayor’s new chief of staff, who began work this week, is Alexander M. Sanchez, who was a very able Secretary of Labor, Licensing and Regulation under Gov. Martin O’Malley. Mr. Sanchez should bring a steadying hand to City Hall along with what he describes as a “passionate” commitment to the mayor’s vision for the city.

We hope the hiring of Mr. Sanchez is the mayor’s first step toward righting the Good Ship City Hall quickly and decisively. Now, she needs to address other important vacancies, especially the position of police commissioner.

Mr. Bealefeld will be a hard act to follow. The mayor and her team need to get this one right.

 

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