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C. Fraser Smith: Be careful what you wish for

If you’re a leader, you have to be thinking ahead.

If I do X, what are the likely results? Could I make things worse? Is there a reasonable balance between the likelihood of improvement and the difficulties I might encounter? Is the situation I’m trying to improve bad enough to justify the risks?

I am thinking about the abrupt retirement of former police commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, a man who had been getting a handle on the crime nettle in Baltimore.

Murders were down, violent crime was down, the business community was high on the man and the city in general seemed to have confidence in someone who sounded like Baltimore when he spoke.

So, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake didn’t fight to keep this guy?

Bealefeld said he wanted to spend more time with his family. Perhaps so. It would be a sign of sound mental health. It’s a punishing job.

At the same time, his explanation sounded like the one you hear from political figures who’ve seen polls that offer dim prospects for re-election. In Bealefeld’s case, the dim prospects were personified in City Hall forces deeply into second-guessing.

Almost anyone

The mayor seemed largely unconcerned by his departure — as if the advances he made could easily be sustained or improved upon by almost anyone.

“Almost anyone” is pretty much what you get when you change a situation like this. You can bring someone in from outside or promote from within. In either case, for slightly different reasons, you have no idea what you’re getting.

Commissioner is not the same as deputy commissioner. Baltimore is not the same as anywhere else. You’re rolling the dice whatever you do.

So, now we have a man from California, former Oakland police chief Anthony Batts. He was chosen over two or three longtime Baltimore cops who had worked with Bealefeld.

Since the appointment of Batts was announced, two of the leading local candidates for the job he got have stepped aside — at least temporarily. One retired. One went on extended sick leave.

When you do something as controversial as allowing Bealefeld to leave without a struggle, you’re at the mercy of your blue-ribbon selection panel. Its judgment becomes your judgment.

Unhappiness at home

One of the most obvious potential consequences is unhappiness here at home. Yes, a police department is a quasi-military organization. People are obliged to follow the leader. All of the cops here were not happy with Bealefeld to be sure, since he had seemed to be coming down hard on miscreants — men who had been steering various bits of business in exchange for money.

Batts is on his own now to find out where the bodies are buried, as they say. Two veteran cops who might have been counted on to show him the ropes weren’t there when Batts began work this week.

A few days ago, the mayor declared victory of a sort over those who called Baltimore unsafe, governed by gangs. Violence, the critics trumpeted, was Baltimore. But we had gotten through the summer’s major festivals almost without incident.

And then a researcher, Peter Marvit, was murdered steps away from his home near Herring Run Park.

It is no doubt true that no one — not Bealefeld, not Batts — could have saved this single life. It is also true that hundreds of lives were saved when Bealefeld was in charge. The murder count was falling.

The city must pray that Batts will do as well.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.