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Bealefeld: It’s time to take a hike

He says he needs space, and he wants to be alone. So he wants to walk. And walk. And walk some more.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III

So before he retires Aug. 1, Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III plans to take a vacation with his wife and then hike the Appalachian Trail by himself in hopes that trekking through Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey will bury some of the “madness” of fighting urban crime and help him sort out a 31-year career.

“It will be nice to try to uncoil from all of this,” Bealefeld said this week during a wide-ranging interview with The Daily Record covering everything from his outspoken opinions on the city’s homicide rate to the crisis of vacant houses, the politics of the job and a lack of enthusiastic support from the Baltimore business community.

“I don’t want to be with anyone. I don’t want to talk to anyone,” Bealefeld said of his hike that will begin July 1. “Don’t want to have any discussion about what I’m going to eat, about how long I’m going to stop, how long I’m going to sleep. I want to make every decision myself and not have to have any discourse with anyone for a month. It’s a good way for me to try to forget some of this stuff through real hard physical exercise and alone time.”

At 49, Bealefeld described himself as an implausible retiree. In fact, he said he has already received some new job offers. Physically fit from often running to work along Frederick Road and playing recreation league hockey, he said his future is now firmly in his hands for the first time since he put on a Baltimore Police Department badge as a rookie in 1981.

“I’m on kind of really weird ground, and I’m trying to put my finger on the feeling I have about it,” he said Tuesday, two days before his last day in command after five years as commissioner.

“For cops, when I’m explaining, it is like after you graduate from the academy and you find out you’re going to be assigned to the post and you have all this nervous energy, this anxiousness. And I have that feeling again, I think that’s great. I love it. It’s that anxious kind of energy that makes you sharp,” he said.

The politics wore thin

Reflecting on his tenure as commissioner, Bealefeld said the constant politics of the job wore thin even as the city’s 2011 homicide rate dropped below 200 murders for the first time since 1977.

He expressed surprise and disappointment that the local business community did not totally embrace the gains in public safety on his watch and link them to economic development efforts.

“With crime statistics dropping over the past three to four years, I thought they would say, ‘This is the reason we should be optimistic about Baltimore, the reason why building a development here would be a safe bet because they are getting it right and making it a safer city,’” Bealefeld said.

“I thought that would pay off, but it hasn’t so much. I think it’s a lot of other issues — quality of life issues, the homeless issue creeping people out, the kids running through the harbor creeping people out. I think the GBC can cash in on the dividend. They just have to figure out how to marry it in the right way.”

At the same time, Bealefeld praised and thanked several business leaders for their support, including H&S Bakery owner and developer John Paterakis; Martin Resnick, founder of Martin’s Caterers; William L. Jews, former CEO of CareFirst Inc.; Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee; and Robert C. Embry, president of the Abell Foundation.

The commissioner also said working in an environment that often seemed to pit one person against another at City Hall was not productive.

Bealefeld’s initiatives to reduce arrests, get illegal guns off the streets, increase foot patrols and forge liaisons with community leaders often collided with the realities of homicides, gangs, drug dealing and the challenges of running a large department with plenty of egos and troubles that included overtime controversies and legal settlements involving police misconduct that have totaled millions since Bealefeld was sworn in as commissioner in 2007.

And yet Bealefeld said he found achievement not in boardrooms but on the streets.

“The thing that made me so successful is that I never tried to be more than I was, so I never had to think of it too much,” he said. “I went off with my gut instincts, and I just tried to be real the whole time. And I think that when you start to figure out an audience or figure out what people want to hear and want you to do is where you really run afoul.

“I got in trouble here where you get embroiled in political notions, and when you’re trying to over-think this stuff because the real audience, the real constituency, are those folks on the street. The fact of the matter is they loved it when I spoke for them. They loved it when I got out there and rolled my sleeves up, and they loved it to see the demonstration of effort. It was in trying to figure out all of this other stuff that will make your head hurt.”

Crime-fighting legacy

Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III

Reversing a strategy of arresting offenders by the thousands in a “zero tolerance” approach to law enforcement was difficult at first, but it is the reason for the reduction in the crime rate, he said.

And Bealefeld wants that to be his legacy.

“I inherited a police force that was dependent on arrests as its problem-solving mechanism,” he said. “We were making 100,000 arrests a year, and last year, we made fewer than 60,000 arrests and had the best results in the last 30 years. People write a lot of things in terms of, was it the weather? … Signs of the zodiac? More reindeer in Alaska?

“But to lead a department away from making arrests to not making arrests — that takes real work. That’s real effort and a singular accomplishment. Nobody else in this city can lay claim to that. No one else.”

While Bealefeld is pleased that his efforts are now winning national recognition, he said such recognition was slow in coming because he felt uncomfortable seeking it.

“There’s so much of a good, old boy network in those things that I didn’t feel comfortable with what you had to do with that kind of stuff,” he said. “I felt like you liked me for what I do, you like me for what I’ve done. I’m just not comfortable with that kind of stuff.”

His record as commissioner, in the trenches and on the streets, should speak for itself, he said.

“It’s a slower route, it’s a slog to get there, to get the recognition,” he said. “That’s probably one of my regrets is that I feel like we’re finally cracking through.

“I’ve felt like for five years, I could do this job, standing on one leg with a blindfold and a hand tied behind my back,” he said. “Policing isn’t all that difficult. It’s all the other stuff. It’s all the politics of it. It’s all the financial parts of it. And the media part is not easy. It’s just not that easy. But you realize that everybody has a role to play. God bless the mayor and the city council president and those folks for doing their jobs in the manner that they believe is right … but it’s grinding. It is grinding.”

‘Bulldoze the thing down’

Another constant problem has been the city’s vacant houses and abandoned buildings, which present a host of public safety problems. Well beyond eyesores, the structures that by some counts total 40,000 should be razed, Bealefeld said.

“I think the mayor is on the right track to try to grow the population base of the city, but this notion about this housing tract or that housing tract, and they say you can’t tear them down because that’s where people are going to live, are you guys idiots?” he asked.

“No one’s ever going to live there. There’s a tree growing out of the top of that place. And even if you cut the tree down, there’s lead paint in there and there’s asbestos and all this other creepy stuff. No one’s ever going to live there, and even if they did the math, the bank’s not going to lend them money to try to rehab that place. It’s dumb.

“They need to just get over it and pull a tractor in there and bulldoze the thing down.”

Just after he returns from the Appalachian Trail, Bealefeld will turn 50. That milestone — and the grief he still carries from his father’s death from pancreatic cancer last November — has given him a new perspective.

So he is packing up the rented two-story stone cottage he shares with his wife and daughter near Irvington and will soon move back to his home in Harford County. He plans on making regular visits to his son, a Marine stationed in Pensacola, Fla., and teaching his 16-year-old daughter to drive.

“I had to make time,” he said of being at his father’s side during his final days. “And I’m thinking about all the times he called and I didn’t go and I didn’t see him enough and all those things. And I’m not beating myself up with all of this kind of stuff, because I was with him at the end and he knew I loved him and I knew he loved me … but I’m just thinking, he was 74 and I knew there was still a lot of stuff he wanted to do. So I’m not going to have those kinds of regrets. I just won’t.”

Frederick H. Bealefeld III

Age: 49

Hometown: Baltimore

Family: Married to Linda Bealefeld; two children, Erica and Frederick

Education: Baltimore Police Academy

Work History: Baltimore Police Department, May 1981 – August 2012

Boards and Service: Major Cities Chiefs Association, International Association of Chiefs of Police, Washington-Baltimore High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, U.S. Department of Justice’s Criminal Intelligence Coordinating Council.