His departure — scheduled for Aug. 1 — stunned some city officials and triggered a nationwide search for a new leader to run the nation's eighth-largest police department.
"While I am saddened to announce his retirement, I respect his decision to retire after decades of service to spend more time with his family," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said in a statement. "I know he loves the job and was proud to serve with honesty and integrity for these many years."
Several top city police officials could be in the running for the job, which promises to be one of the mayor's most important and toughest Cabinet-level picks.
As commissioner, Bealefeld won over residents with his folksy style and his homespun colloquialisms, targeting "bad guys with guns" and calling criminals "morons" and "knuckleheads." He fought hard to transform the 3,100-member force into a more professional crime-fighting organization, instituting an intensive training program despite gripes from rank-and-file officers.
But a parade of departmental scandals dominated headlines and overshadowed his efforts. Sixteen officers were convicted in a kickback scheme involving a towing company, an off-duty officer killed an unarmed Marine during a bar fight, and an officer was convicted of dealing drugs from a police station parking lot.
Bealefeld did not speak to reporters Thursday, but in an interview late last year, he cited the strains of the job, singling out the Select Lounge shooting, in which officers mistakenly killed a plainclothes colleague. He also noted some personal losses: the deaths of his father and of a close friend on the force.
"It's been a very, very difficult year," the commissioner said in that interview. He referred to what he feels are his most important accomplishments — pushing the number of homicides under 200 in 2011, the fewest in three decades, and targeting police corruption.
The drop in homicides came even as his officers cut the number of arrests from more than 100,000 in 2005 to about 45,000 that year, which Bealefeld saw as vindication of his community-oriented style over the much-maligned zero-tolerance policing strategy of his predecessors.
Bealefeld's departure in August will roughly coincide with his 50th birthday, and he has vowed to help in the transition.
Also announcing her resignation Thursday was Sheryl Goldstein, the head of the mayor's criminal justice office and a confidante of Bealefeld's.
He told the mayor of his decision over lunch on Wednesday at Jimmy's restaurant in Fells Point, after they had appeared to announce the addition of surveillance cameras in Northeast Baltimore. City Hall sources said the mayor urged Bealefeld to reconsider, but after speaking with his family, he made his final decision Thursday.
According to a department spokesman, Bealefeld informed his staff at a weekly crime meeting, expressing his gratitude "for what you do every day. ... Some of you have saved my life, many of you have made me a better man, a better person, and all of your have made so very proud,"
He walked out to a standing ovation.
Bealefeld, whose salary was $194,815 and who will draw an annual pension of at least $140,000, led the department for five years, an unusually long time in the world of big city police chiefs, where politics and crime often are a volatile mix. It's the longest tenure in Baltimore since Donald D. Pomerleau was chief from 1966 to 1981.
"Commissioner Bealefeld has been a great public servant for the people of Baltimore throughout his entire career in the Baltimore Police Department and we owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude," the mayor's statement said.
City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said he was "flabbergasted" to learn of Bealefeld's retirement. "I talked to him about it a month ago, and he said he wasn't going anywhere. And then today the mayor calls and says he's going to retire," Young said.
Young said that after a rocky start, he developed a deep respect for Bealefeld. In 2007, Bealefeld ordered Young, then an East Baltimore councilman, to be escorted out of a crime meeting at police headquarters after he questioned the validity of police statistics.
"I think he has done a good job leading the Police Department," Young said. "Murders were down. Overall crime was down. I was impressed with his interactions with communities. I went on some of those community-led cop walks. He was very down-to-earth."
Young said that he hoped the mayor would choose a new commissioner from the department, but he declined to name possible successors. Among the most experienced in the department are deputy commissioners Anthony Barksdale and John Skinner, and Col. Jesse Oden.
Mayor Sheila Dixon chose Bealefeld to head the department shortly before the 2007 mayoral election. At the time, the city's murder rate was climbing to the highest levels in years and arrest numbers were soaring, sparking complaints from judges and civil liberties groups.
Dixon said she chose Bealefeld over another top contender — a former District of Columbia police chief — because his passion and personality won her over.
"There was something about his spirit and the connection that we made that really helped me determine he could implement that whole three-pronged approach to fighting crime," Dixon said. "It was one of the best decisions that I made. He was an extraordinary person and he really made history."
Politicians who represent the city in Annapolis expressed both surprise and admiration. House Majority Whip Talmadge Branch, who represents East Baltimore, noted the drops in crime, as well as the commanders Bealefeld chose for the districts.
Branch endorsed the idea of a national search for a successor, adding that the department could use "some new people and some new ideas."
Sen. Verna Jones-Rodwell of West Baltimore called the commissioner's departure "an opportunity to look outside of Baltimore. But the candidate has to be [one] with a strong track record with the urban setting."
Del. Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., who also represents West Baltimore, said Bealefeld would be missed. "He was one I've always had a good relationship with, even when he was a major and I was on the City Council. He was one of those rare commissioners that wasn't political."
The commissioner appeared re-energized two years ago when Gregg L. Bernstein became the city's new top prosecutor, unseating an incumbent with whom Bealefeld and several predecessors had openly fought, claiming she undermined police efforts to fight crime.
The Bealefeld-Bernstein duo signaled a new cooperative spirit billed as a potent crime-fighting front, and on Thursday Bernstein said that his friend will go down as "one of the best police commissioners" the city has ever had.
"I think through sheer dint of will and effort, he greatly improved the effectiveness of the Baltimore Police Department, and I think that the statistics bear that out in terms of the drop in crime," Bernstein said. "And I think he deserves a large amount of the credit for that. I think that the citizens of Baltimore owe him a great debt of gratitude and respect."
When Bernstein ran for office in 2010, Bealefeld endorsed him by placing a sign in the front yard of his home. The commissioner took heat for putting himself and his office in the middle of a political campaign, but that support was credited with giving the upstart Bernstein needed publicity.
Earlier this year, Bernstein and Bealefeld launched a community prosecution model that put prosecutors in charge of specific geographic zones. It connects them to police in those zones, in hopes that the two agencies will become more closely aligned.
Bernstein declined to describe what he would hope for in a successor, saying that was up to Rawlings-Blake.
Bealefeld joined the Baltimore Police Department as a cadet in 1981, dropping out of Anne Arundel Community College when a broken collarbone ruined his chances for a lacrosse scholarship. He took his academy entrance exam wearing a neck brace.
Bealefeld moved up through the ranks and served in a variety of roles — including patrol, homicide, narcotics, and as commander of the Southern District station. He followed in the footsteps of his grandfather, who once walked a beat along Greenmount Avenue, and a great-uncle, who was killed in the line of duty.
Maryland State Police Superintendent Marcus Brown served with Bealefeld for many years in the city, and commanded the Northwestern District when Bealefeld headed the Southern.
"The one thing that has always stood out about him is his commitment to the citizens of Baltimore," Brown said. "You never had to question where Fred was on any issue. His integrity was a staple for him from the time he was an officer until Aug. 1 when he retires."
Brown, who left the city force just as Bealefeld took over as commissioner, said their discussions almost always involved "his struggle with the crime fight. … He never talked about the job wearing on him to the point where he wanted to retire. All of our conversations were about what's the next step toward making the city safe."
In his interview last year, Bealefeld discounted speculation that he was about to depart.
"Yeah sure, look, there was speculation in 2008, when we posted the lowest homicide rate in 20 years, and people said, 'Good time for him to cash out,'" Bealefeld said. "There was a lot of speculation when we sustained the result in 2009, people said, 'Good time for him to cash out.'
"In 2010, the lowest homicide rate in 22 years, people said, 'Good time to cash out.' Look, the past year has been tough. You talked about Select Lounge. I lost a great friend. My father just passed. Its been a very, very difficult year."
The Select Lounge shooting had a profound impact on the department, as one police officer was killed at the hands of another. It sparked a series of reviews over training and the performance of the officers at the scene — the very issues Bealefeld had been trying to improve during his tenure as commissioner.
The commissioner also had to confront a crisis in rape investigations. It was revealed that the department had a high rate of rape reports that police deemed "unfounded," leading victims' rights groups to conclude that attacks on women were not being thoroughly investigated.
At a community meeting last year, Bealefeld lamented that more Baltimoreans know the current batting average of their favorite baseball player than the number of people dying on the city's streets.
"We don't know that stat that drives the engine that creeps people out about living in Baltimore," the commissioner told Northeast Baltimore residents. "We continue to see great progress in the city. We have great difficulties getting the word out."
Reporters Tricia Bishop and Michael Dresser contributed to this article.
•Joined the Police Department as a cadet in 1981
•Worked in homicide and narcotics and ran the Southern District station
•Named chief in 2007, and served five years, the longest tenure of a city police commissioner since 1981.