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Kevin Davis failed in his quest for better optics as Baltimore Police Commissioner

As a media critic, I couldn’t help noticing how much time and effort Police Commissioner Kevin Davis was putting into optics in recent months as crime in the city only worsened.

As a resident of the city for 27 years, I wondered if this is where our top cop’s focus should be in these troubled times.

On Friday, Davis was fired by Mayor Catherine Pugh, who herself seems deeply concerned with image, given all her “change the narrative” talk coming out of City Hall lately. Will the firing of Davis be good for her image as someone trying to change the city’s downward arc and the widespread national reporting of it?

Davis was spending too much time on image over reality, in my view, particularly in trying to control the image of policing and crime in this city.

In November, Davis invoked narrative change in his eulogy for Police Detective Sean Suiter.

In praising Suiter as a hardworking detective who tried to make the city better, Davis said, “It’s time for the local and national narrative to start reflecting” that positive characterization of the Baltimore Police Department.

I thought it odd to to call out the media for allegedly not being positive enough in the setting of someone’s funeral. That’s what I mean by being unduly concerned with image.

In a column I wrote two weeks ago, I urged Davis to tell citizens how the Baltimore Police Department’s special Gun Trace Task Force ran so out of control and managed to abuse so many citizens for so long.

“Let Commissioner Davis give us that kind of information instead of his highly spun words of hope in the recent HBO documentary ‘Baltimore Rising,’ ” I wrote.

I stopped short of saying that I thought he was a media poseur in that documentary from director Sonja Sohn — giving her access in hopes of getting a portrait of an earnest, deeply concerned and caring commissioner working night and day to reduce crime and improve police-community relations.

I don’t mind someone trying to spin the media to advance their career. Almost everyone seems to do it these days, especially those in power. It is part of what’s so wrong with the country, and why so many private citizens mistrust politicians, elected officials and the media.

But here’s what troubled me about Davis and makes me glad to see him go.

Citizens need reliable, trustworthy information to make the best decisions about their lives. While we regularly talk about the media’s job of delivering that, we don’t talk nearly so much about the moral responsibility of government officials to provide it.

I know how hard The Sun’s crime and justice staff has to work to get sound information out of the police and city officials. And I felt in recent months that it was only getting harder.

Take the comments from Davis on when he did or did not know that Suiter was scheduled to testify in a federal corruption probe the day after he was shot.

Based on the accounts of Sun reporters Kevin Rector and Justin Fenton, Davis initially said Baltimore police weren’t told of Suiter’s pending testimony for nearly a week after his death.

But then Acting U.S. Attorney Stephen Schenning refuted Davis’ account, saying he told the police commissioner the day Suiter died of the pending testimony.

Davis is “mistaken about the timing,” Schenning said.

Davis then shifted his account to match Schenning’s. Davis said his previous comments had been misinterpreted.

That’s what I mean about government officials giving citizens clean, clear information about events that affect their lives.

Social media ran wild with theories on how and why Suiter was killed, only adding to the confusion in our city about crime and the police.

I hope the new commissioner will focus less on image and more on providing clear information about crime in this city to reporters and citizens.

Getting reliable information about crime is literally a life-and-death issue. We cannot afford a commissioner who says he was misinterpreted after his narrative of events is credibly disputed by a federal prosecutor.

I hope the new commissioner will get that kind of narrative right, instead of lecturing the local and national media about which narratives they should be reporting.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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