Bealefeld's legacy

Frederick H. Bealefeld IIImade Baltimore safer. He ascended to the top job in the city's police department at a time when Baltimore was reeling from violence that threatened a return to the dark days of 300-plus murders a year. He immediately brought stability, focus and a no-nonsense attitude that got results. Crime is down, but so are arrests, and — most crucial for any police commissioner — homicides are at a low the city has not seen in two generations. His sudden announcement that he will retire in August, five years after his elevation to commissioner, is without a doubt a blow to the city.

Mr. Bealefeld is a Baltimore cop through and through. He worked his way up from foot patrol to homicide detective to commissioner. He is blunt and plainspoken — his mantra was to go after "bad guys with guns," and his favorite descriptor for criminals is "knuckleheads" — but he is also widely perceived to have implemented a more thoughtful and nuanced crime-fighting strategy than many of his immediate predecessors.

He definitively moved the department away from the zero-tolerance policies employed during then-MayorMartin O'Malley's administration, which had initially driven down crime but which also fostered ill will between the department and the community. But he also worked closely with now-Governor O'Malley's administration, as well as U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein and other federal officials, in a way that enabled authorities to crack down more effectively on the small subset of people who were responsible for a disproportionate share of Baltimore crime.

His success speaks for itself. Although Baltimore remains one of the most violent cities in America, crime of all kinds has dropped here during Mr. Bealefeld's tenure. He took over the department midway through 2007, and the city saw 282 homicides that year. In 2011, the number was down to 196, the lowest total since 1977. Violence remains unacceptably high, but the progress, measured in lives saved, cannot be denied.

But not everything has gone smoothly under Mr. Bealefeld's tenure. The news of crime-fighting gains has been tempered by a string of reports of corruption and misconduct by city police officers. Just in the last year, an officer was found guilty of fatally shooting an ex-Marine during a drunken confrontation outside a bar; more than a dozen officers have pleaded guilty in a towing kickback scandal; and an officer pleaded guilty to dealing drugs while on duty, sometimes in the parking lot of the Northwest District. Mr. Bealefeld replaced the head of his internal affairs division after photographs surfaced showing the commander arm-in-arm with the officer implicated in the drug dealing scandal. And just last week, the officer who had led the investigation into the disappearance of North Carolina teen Phylicia Barnes came under investigation on allegations that he misused his police power to search for his own daughter, who briefly went missing. The probe has since widened to determine whether other officers improperly aided him.

Mr. Bealefeld has insisted that such reports were proof that he was cracking down on misconduct rather than evidence of a sudden increase in corruption. But the steady drumbeat of bad news was particularly damaging for a department that has long confronted mistrust in the community — and, crucially, from jurors.

That said, MayorStephanie Rawlings-Blakehad been wise to keep Mr. Bealefeld on when she ascended to her office two years ago, and she was wise to try to talk him out of retirement. The blemishes the department suffered during Mr. Bealefeld's tenure did not outweigh its successes.

But the situation does provide the mayor with a difficult balancing act as she looks for a new top cop. Ms. Rawlings-Blake has promised a nationwide search for the commissioner's replacement but also to consider local applicants for the job. Mr. Bealefeld proved that a homegrown candidate, someone who knows the city and has deep connections to local and state leaders, can make tremendous progress. But the string of scandals also speaks to the possible value in bringing in an outsider.

For the first time in years, Baltimore needs a new police commissioner but not a new crime-fighting strategy. The mayor needs to find someone who can continue the progress Mr. Bealefeld made, while restoring the community's confidence that those who enforce the law are the first to follow it.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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