Cynthia Gross' first interaction with Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III came at a community meeting about seven months ago, when she stood up to complain about officers being overly aggressive. In a room full of stone-faced officers, you could hear a pin drop, she recalled.
That night, Bealefeld offered to walk through her East Baltimore neighborhood with her to talk through her concerns.
"I was complaining," she said of that meeting. "I wasn't a fan. But he's a man of his word, and we were able to work with him."
During his five-year tenure leading the city force, Bealefeld emphasized community relations, attending sometimes three neighborhood walks per week and trying to repair the Police Department's image. As arrests fell by more than half, from a high of more than 100,000, he urged residents to get more involved and personally helped them jump-start those efforts.
On Monday night, he again visited Gross' Middle East community in the shadow of Johns Hopkins Hospital, playing football with neighborhood children, walking through a bustling community garden and engaging shy neighbors watching from their doorsteps. It was Bealefeld's last community walk as commissioner, but it was a first organized effort for the neighborhood, after Bealefeld challenged them to do more and offered to come along.
"I feel we've ignited some grass-roots level of activism that wasn't there before," Bealefeld told reporters when asked about his legacy. He said one of his major goals as commissioner was to convey to residents that "we're not here to tell them what to do, but that we're here to do it with them."
Few police commissioners in Baltimore have been able to leave on their own terms, and Bealefeld's decision to retire has afforded him a chance to run a victory lap of sorts as his time winds down. Though his last day is officially Aug. 1, he'll step aside this month.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has hired a law enforcement think tank and appointed an advisory panel to aid in a national search for his replacement. At Monday's City Council hearing, where Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young introduced a resolution thanking Bealefeld for his service, Young urged the administration not to go outside the city for the next commissioner.
"You have put in place a great command staff, and I know we won't miss a beat," Young said. "I caution the administration not to go outside to reinvent the wheel. You already have the tools in place and people who can step up to the plate and keep the momentum moving along."
Council members heaped praise on Bealefeld. During his tenure, the city continued to register among the most violent cities in the country, and there was a steady parade of ugly police corruption cases. But officials said they never doubted his commitment to fixing the problems.
Residents, whose interactions with police are not always positive, seemed to share the sentiment.
Joseph McCard, a block watch captain who helped organize the walk, said: "We have a long way to go, but it's a start. People were afraid, and now they're seeing results. Whenever we've called on the commissioner or his commanders from the Eastern District, they've always been there."
John Rehmert is among those who felt compelled to get involved. He lives in South Baltimore but attends community walks and events all over the city. On Monday, he wore a white and blue C.O.P. vest — which stands for Community on Patrol — and helped stop traffic for Bealefeld and members of the community.
Passing through alternating blocks of blight and gentrification, Bealefeld chatted with Inez Blue, 56, and waved over a patrol officer, Michael Gentile, an 18-year veteran.
"Miss Inez," Bealefeld said, "what's the No. 1 thing for your block? Tell this officer."
"Foot patrol," she said.
"Foot patrol, foot patrol, foot patrol," Bealefeld said to Gentile. "Are you going to help her with that?"
Blue, who said the walk was the second time she had met Bealefeld, called him a "good commissioner. There's only so much he can do. There's only so much the police can do. Some people are just afraid."
Reporters asked Bealefeld, who spent much of his career on the city's west side, why he chose Middle East as the last neighborhood where he would do a community walk.
Without missing a beat, he replied: "They asked."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun