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Editorial: Finding a police commissioner

One month ago, in regard to the search for Baltimore’s next top cop, we wrote in part: ‘“Turning the department around’ is a woefully understated description of what the next police commissioner needs to do. …The city’s homicide rate, while showing signs of ebbing, remains at a level that is still scandalous. The department is operating under a consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department, morale among many officers is in the tank, public confidence in the department is nonexistent and the need for technological improvements to modernize operations is high.”

Since then:

  • Baltimore saw 17 murders in the last week of September alone.
  • One officer was fired after he was found intoxicated and slumped over the wheel of his patrol vehicle.
  • A high-ranking commander quit after throwing a chair into a wall during a meeting with an aide to interim Commissioner Gary Tuggle.
  • Tuggle withdrew his name from consideration for the permanent position, saying he could not, for personal reasons, make the long-term commitment the job requires.
  • T.J. Smith, the nationally known police spokesman, submitted his resignation. In a social media post announcing his decision, he said it was just as important for police to get criminals off the streets as it is for the department to rid itself of those “who want to tarnish the badge and the image of policing.”

Mayor Catherine E. Pugh and Baltimore City Solicitor Andre M. Davis have both said a new police commissioner will be named by the end of the month. The process has largely been shrouded in secrecy, with Pugh announcing in June a seven-member panel to assist in the search and saying in August the city received more than 40 applications. Baltimore officials have cited confidentiality agreements in not even releasing the names of the applicants.

We understand the need to be discreet in the search process, and ultimately the final decision is Pugh’s alone. But interest in the new commissioner is a good thing. It shows city residents and observers want to get a sense of not only who the mayor’s pick is as a person but also to understand his or her philosophy on policing, particularly when the city is attempting to comply with its consent decree with the Department of Justice.

The city had made strides in controlling crime earlier this year before the recent spasm of violence. As the recent headlines show, however, the problems facing city police cannot be solved by one person.

That’s why we fear the absence of any substantive information about the commissioner search will set up the new appointee for failure. “Winning” an introductory press conference might mean a good day in City Hall, but the success of Pugh’s nominee will be determined only in the years to come.

Rather than a splashy introduction of Pugh’s pick, we would like to see the finalists present their vision for effective policing in Baltimore. The mayor could use the public feedback to help her decision-making. And the community would see its thoughts on the police were taken seriously, which can only help build trust between the two groups.

T.J. Smith, in his resignation message, said there was a “systematic failure” of policing in the city. It will take more the announcement of a new commissioner to change that.