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The secret search for a new Baltimore police commissioner

Lord Acton (1834-1902), an English historian, politician and writer, is not much thought about, or quoted, these days. But in his day, he was highly regarded as one of the wisest folks around. Amassing a 60,000-volume library that, near the time of his death, was purchased by Andrew Carnegie and ultimately given to Cambridge University, Lord Acton is perhaps best known these days for his written observation that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

But Lord Acton is also known for another analytic comment, one Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh and political leaders seem hell-bent on ignoring when it comes to the Baltimore Police Department generally and the ongoing search for a new commissioner in particular: “Everything secret degenerates, even the administration of justice; nothing is safe that does not show how it can bear discussion and publicity.”

The mayor’s response to recent press reports about one apparent contender for the job, Fort Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald, causes this Editorial Board to shake its collective head. According to The Baltimore Sun, “(the mayor) said she was still vetting candidates and would not confirm Fitzgerald’s candidacy, saying she was on track to name the new commissioner by the end of the month.”

Why must this vetting be done in secret? Have we learned nothing from the previous vetting flaws so evident in the selection of Commissioner Darryl De Sousa? The lack of trust resulting from the lack of transparency in all matters relating to the Baltimore Police Department is one of the most fundamental problems the city faces.

Why must the selection process itself be so secret and why is the mayor so intent on excluding broader participation in the selection process? Most of us recognize that the quality of our decision-making improves when we invite others to consider and comment on the matter awaiting decision.

Perhaps the most unfortunate part of the entire secret selection process is the cloud it inevitably will place over the individual ultimately selected as commissioner. Instead of having the broad support of many in our community at the outset, the incoming commissioner – because of the secret process by which he or she will have been selected – likely will need to spend considerable time overcoming the mistrust generated by the secret selection process itself.  This is indeed unfortunate given the vast amount of work needed right now to address the department’s many grave problems.

Editorial Advisory Board members Wesley D. Blakeslee and Arthur F. Fergenson did not participate in this opinion.


James B. Astrachan, Chair

James K. Archibald

John Bainbridge Jr.

Wesley D. Blakeslee

Martha Ertman

Arthur F. Fergenson

Susan Francis

Ericka King

Stephen Meehan

C. William Michaels

Angela W. Russell

Debra G. Schubert

H. Mark Stichel


Find out more about the members of the Editorial Advisory Board.