However Baltimore's plain-spoken police commissioner is remembered, when he departs on the first day of August, he will leave his successor a challenging target.

The number 200.

That is the standard by which Frederick H. Bealefeld III's successor will be measured. Under his watch, Baltimore recorded 196 homicides in 2011, breaking a symbolic barrier that eluded nine previous chiefs, all the way back to 1977.

Fairly or unfairly, the mayor and commissioner — along with the city as a whole — have been judged and have judged themselves on the annual body count. It is always a horrific-looking number, but in actuality a tiny percentage of crime.

City leaders and criminal justice experts fear that a new leader, even one promising to continue Bealefeld's strategies, will halt the momentum of near across-the-board crime decreases while imprinting his or her own ideological stamp on the force.

"The benchmark is now 200," said Bert F. Shirey, a retired deputy commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department with 37 years of experience. "The public and people who are paying the bills see this number as the bottom line. The new person coming in certainly doesn't want the number to go back up again."

Speaking about overall crime levels, City Councilman William H. Cole IV, said, "I think the bar is set. It's up to the applicants to understand that we now know where our new low can be as far as the crime rate goes, and we want to push below that."

On Friday, a day after announcing his retirement, Bealefeld used statistics as he spoke about his successes: "Minus seven, minus 17." Such tallies — 64 killings through April 4, compared to 71 in the same period last year, and 112 non-fatal shootings, compared to 129 last year — remain the barometer of city crime. They will be tough for Bealefeld's successor to match, or beat, whether he or she rises up from the ranks or is plucked from someplace else.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake plans a national search to replace Bealefeld as head of the 3,100-member police force, which has been under his stewardship for the past five years.

The unique challenge, according to Baltimore leaders, even those critical of the commissioner's tenure, is advancing a plan that has for the first time in decades led to a sustained drop in crime.

"It's going to be incumbent on the next person to continue that direction," said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement think tank in Washington that has helped Los Angeles and Chicago find chiefs.

"Some new chiefs come in and dismantle everything that a successful person has done," Wexler said, "but that would be stupid."

Still, he urged the mayor and community leaders to think carefully about "where the department is and where it needs to go. … What are the issues facing Baltimore in 2012? They might not be the same issues that faced Fred Bealefeld in 2007."

Bealefeld lasted longer than is typical of most big-city police chiefs, surviving a change at the top of City Hall, where consecutive mayors endorsed and embraced his crime plan.

Yearly declines in homicides, shootings, assaults and other crimes allowed leaders to proudly proclaim a notoriously dangerous city safer — even if many residents said their experiences didn't match the numbers. Those declines shielded Bealefeld from the impact of other problems in the department.

He survived a steady stream of misconduct and corruption cases that sent officers to federal and state prison, a fatal "friendly-fire" shooting of an officer, and numerous shake-ups in command. There were also revelations that many reported rapes were being dismissed by detectives who wrote them up as "unfounded," prompting an overhaul of the sex offense unit.

To the public, scandals come and go with the headlines, but safety remains a primary concern, local leaders say. In March, Bealefeld's new pick to lead Internal Affairs stood in front of residents in Belair-Edison, ready to field questions just as another misconduct scandal was making news.

Nobody asked a single question of Grayling Williams, who was lured to Baltimore from the federal government to restore credibility in officer discipline. Instead, residents pestered patrol officers about a fight at a neighborhood school.

"You go to a community meeting and crime is the topic," said Cole. "They want to know, from the Police Department, what are they doing to stop whatever is going on and to make their day safer. At the end of the day, that's what it all boils down to."

What has helped Bealefeld slide through crises, Cole said, was his intolerance of bad behavior. For example, he fired a cop who berated and pushed a teenage skateboarder at the Inner Harbor, over the objections of his command staff.

Cole doesn't see any reason to change the city's crime-fighting strategy. "I think the blueprint the commissioner has laid out appears to be working," he said. "The numbers themselves indicate that."

Helen Holton, another City Council member, hopes the mayor chooses a replacement before Bealefeld leaves. "My biggest concern is that we get someone to step into the job and not miss a beat," she said.

The impact of his departure, she said, will "depend on how long it takes to find his replacement and how long it takes that person to blend with our culture." She's not partial to an internal or external candidate but said the person must be "sensitive to diversity and understand the environment here."

City Councilman Brandon Scott, who is 28, notes that Bealefeld "has been a cop three years longer than I've been alive." Scott said that many of the officers who patrolled the streets of Park Heights, where he grew up, are now in the command staff.

He hasn't always agreed with the commissioner, but he said the "difference is night and day" when he compares the crime in his neighborhood now to his childhood, having grown up in the 1990s, when 300 homicides a year was the norm.

"We have too many people who have died to not recognize that progress we've made in this city," Scott said.

Bealefeld's unusually long tenure for a big-city chief gave the department a rare — and welcomed — span of stability, at least in crime-fighting strategy, even as Rawlings-Blake succeeded Sheila Dixon as mayor. Officers endured shifting policies under four different leaders between 2000 and 2007.

Bealefeld's immediate predecessor, Leonard D. Hamm, was pushed out by a mayor angry over high crime and high arrest numbers. Kevin P. Clark was fired after a dispute with his fiancee erupted in scandal, and Edward T. Norris was sent to federal prison for using an off-the-books fund for personal expenses while leading the city force. Before him, Ronald L. Daniel quit after serving just 39 days as commissioner because he didn't agree with the mayor on how to fight crime.

The department went from the perceived soft-policing style of Thomas C. Frazier, who billed himself as a "social worker with a gun," straight into a so-called "zero-tolerance" policy. That filled jails with more than 100,000 arrestees a year, drawing rebukes from judges, as well as lawsuits and complaints that thousands of the arrests for nuisance offenses couldn't withstand even an initial judicial review.

Even with the get-tough style of policing, the number of homicides had remained in the mid- to high-200s, not enough to erase the city's dark image as "Bodymore."

Bealefeld is a hometown boy whose mother hailed from Curtis Bay and father from Hollins Ferry. After dropping out of community college to join the force in 1981 as a patrolman in the Western District, he rose through the ranks and was named commissioner in 2007.

Even before becoming commissioner, he was skeptical of the lock-em-all-up strategy. "I knew there was a better way to do it," Bealefeld said Friday.

He implemented a more nuanced crime plan, a hybrid of zero-tolerance and community policing. He made walks with community groups a centerpiece of the strategy, while ordering officers to target violent and repeat offenders, and to get guns off city streets.

He combined that with straight talk and catchphrases — such as "bad guys with guns." That signature slogan outlined a complex enforcement strategy that actually was the result of painstaking research with criminologists to pinpoint the reasons behind the city's violence.

Bealefeld said that the drop in homicides — 282 the year he started, down to 196 last year — and more importantly, significant drops in non-fatal shootings, reflect his officers making a "cultural change" in policing. The key: targeting the relative few who are responsible for most of the crime.

He argues that armed with fewer police officers and less money than his predecessors, "we went from 100,000 arrests a year to half that number and we got better results."

"It was a testament to what they could get done in this city," Bealefeld said of his cops. "We have incrementally reduced the homicide non-fatal shooting rate these five years. … I'm confident there are a lot of very courageous young men and young women in this Police Department who aren't going to be led away from success."

Some crime experts and community leaders offer a more cautious report card on Bealefeld's tenure, noting the corruption scandals that have continued to trouble the department. Sixteen officers were found guilty in a kickback scheme with a towing company, and an officer was convicted of selling heroin from a station house parking lot.

Another blemish was the fatal shooting of an officer by colleagues at a fight outside the Select Lounge. An independent commission that reviewed the "friendly fire" shooting issued a stinging rebuke of the department's training, and said chaotic on-scene supervision contributed to the officer's death. The criticism struck at the heart of Bealefeld's efforts to better train and professionalize the force.

"There have been some issues behind some of the negative things ... that need to be fixed," said Douglas Ward, director of the Division of Public Safety Leadership in the Johns Hopkins University School of Education.

"Maybe someone from another city would bring some new ideas," said Ward, who spent 27 years with the Maryland State Police before retiring. "I would be looking for someone who can really get the nuts and bolts in order."

Ward said a healthy department can survive a leadership change with little impact. "But I think in Baltimore's case, it's going to be difficult. "There have been so many changes in leadership [over the past decade] and so many changes in philosophy, that many employees might be thinking, 'What's next?'"

A. Dwight Pettit, a defense attorney who has represented many people suing the Police Department, and Cortly "C.D." Witherspoon, a Baltimore pastor and civil rights leader, questioned whether "zero-tolerance" has really ended, saying they're hearing complaints that don't reflect the rhetoric.

"I believe that a confrontational situation still exists, an us-versus-them mentality," Pettit said.

Witherspoon questioned the way Bealefeld communicates, calling his "brash style" insensitive. "I don't mind saying that his style was a complete turnoff," the pastor said. "We need a commissioner who's tough on crime but someone who's compassionate as well."

But to the end, Bealefeld defends calling criminals morons and knuckleheads. He said he was just trying to tell it like it is, which he learned to do as a "blue-collar kid" with roots in Curtis Bay.

"I've tried to speak for the people of this city who are frustrated by these predators that circle their blocks at night ... they live in terror from these maniacs," Bealefeld said, packing as many of his "Bealefeldisms" as he could into a single statement.

"I considered them maniacs and morons and idiots for doing the crazy stuff they do to harm people of this city," he said. "And I am completely and absolutely unapologetic to hurting the feelings of any criminal or ne'er-do-wells."

Citizen Bealefeld might lose his megaphone, but he promised to be "passionate about what I do." He conceded, though, "I don't know what my future holds. I'm nervous about it."

Many city leaders appear nervous as well, challenging the mayor to ensure that the next commissioner maintains continuity. Change the person, but not the plan, and keep crime numbers down, they say.

City Councilman Robert W. Curran said Bealefeld "left people reassured," but he has faith the mayor will find a replacement who won't let the department backslide on the crime numbers. "Obviously, if we keep going in the same direction, that's good," he said. "Let's keep the trend going."

peter.hermann@baltsun.com

daviwalker@baltsun.com

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