Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark and Mayor Martin O'Malley

Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark (left) and Mayor Martin O'Malley discuss the city's declining crime rate. (Sun photo by Andre F. Chung / October 28, 2004)

Mayor Martin O'Malley fired his police commissioner yesterday morning, abruptly ending his public support of Kevin P. Clark and asserting that the domestic violence allegations made against the commissioner, although unsubstantiated, were proving a distraction to fighting crime.

The move ends the 21-month tenure of the former New York City police commander, who focused on clearing street corners of drug dealers and reducing violent crime but saw Baltimore's annual homicide rate climb last year for the first time since O'Malley took office in 1999.

Though O'Malley swept into office pledging to drastically reduce killing, the mayor said crime statistics weren't behind Clark's ouster. Instead O'Malley discussed the swirling questions about Clark's involvement in domestic disputes - both 15 years ago in New York and earlier this year in Baltimore.

Clark was involved in a May domestic dispute with his fiancee in North Baltimore, and O'Malley recently lost a legal battle to keep the investigation into the incident private. Upon releasing the investigative report this month, O'Malley and Clark faced new questions about the commissioner's past and future.

O'Malley has insisted the investigation didn't tell him anything he didn't know about Clark's past, but he acknowledged yesterday that its public circulation ate away at Clark's credibility in running the 3,200-officer department.

"Leadership involves the important element of perception," O'Malley said. "When that perception of leadership is eroded, it makes it impossible for that leader to continue on."

The dismissal appeared to end a four-year, two-commissioner influence of former New York City police commanders. It also marks the departure of O'Malley's third police commissioner in five years.

To replace Clark, O'Malley tapped Deputy Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm, a lifelong Baltimorean who rejoined the force in September amid speculation that he would ascend to the top job.

Hamm has already dismissed the two remaining New Yorkers on Clark's staff, and he has promised to pare the New York influence.

O'Malley said he will likely seek Hamm's confirmation as a permanent replacement. Yesterday the new top officer said he has been disturbed by the rapid turnover and declining morale within the Police Department.

"We need to bring back the old style we had and infuse it with the new style from New York," he said. "I'm a stabilizer."

Even Clark's supporters acknowledge that he never won over the city's police force as its commissioner.

They said he was an excellent police officer who is more comfortable patrolling the streets than playing politician. He was known for berating his top commanders during the department's weekly crime mapping meetings, not for mingling with officers.

As he pushed an aggressive style of policing to clear city street corners, Clark also churned through top commanders, including three chiefs of detectives during his tenure.

Clark initially received a mixed welcome from Baltimore. He began Feb. 3, 2003, as the surprise hire to replace former Commissioner Edward T. Norris, who had bolted to the State Police and was later convicted of corruption for misusing money as city commissioner.

Many had expected Acting Commissioner John McEntee, a veteran city officer, to inherit the top job instead of an unknown outsider.

O'Malley touted Clark's success in New York with fighting drugs. The pressure on Clark rose slightly after the homicide count increased last year to 271 from 253, and it mounted after Clark took until April of this year to release his crime fighting plan.

The pressure grew with this year's homicide count. It was at 249 last night, raising the possibility of reaching a disturbing benchmark of old: 300 homicides in one year.

But ultimately, Clark's undoing began May 15. Early that morning, he was involved in a domestic dispute with his fiancee.