Asked to reflect on his tenure in 2009, Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III told an anecdote of a retired police official who approached him at an event and said Bealefeld had persevered through more turmoil than his predecessors.
"Come on, has anybody had to go through what we've gone through?" said Bealefeld, who was then two years into the job. He ticked off budget challenges, the fatal shooting of an off-duty police officer by another officer, and the killing of former City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris in a robbery.
The past several months have been particularly tumultuous: In January, the agency was rocked when a plainclothes officer was fatally shot by fellow officers outside a nightclub. More than 50 officers have been implicated in a kickback scheme with a towing company, and this week, a veteran officer was indicted on charges that he led a heroin trafficking organization, including allegations that he dealt drugs while on duty — and on Police Department property. Murders and shootings are also up, albeit slightly.
Now some wonder if the department is suffering from a crisis of leadership, and how long Bealefeld can continue to weather such storms.
"I would have to use the scenario of a baseball team — you might have a good manager, but sooner or later you can't get rid of the nine players or the whole team," said Larry Young, the influential radio host and former state senator. "I think the ice is getting thin."
City officials say the department has cast the spotlight on itself in the recent misconduct cases, by rooting out the problems and laying them out for public scrutiny. In the towing scandal, Bealefeld personally took the officers' badges from them as they were arrested, and a blue-ribbon panel is studying the nightclub shooting. Flaws in the investigation of sex offenses were also quickly addressed last summer, with a contrite Bealefeld accepting blame.
Bealefeld is entering his fifth year on the job, on a $193,000-per-year contract that runs through 2014. He remains popular among elected officials and community leaders, and counts support from the city police union and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who is seeking to retain her office in September's Democratic primary. She said in an interview Wednesday that she is "confident in his leadership."
"We live in the real world," Rawlings-Blake said. "I don't think there's an industry where there are no bad actors — you couldn't name one. For me, it's about making sure that people understand that we're not going to turn a blind eye to corruption for fear of embarrassment."
It was during the lead-up to the most recent mayoral election in 2007 that Bealefeld ascended to his post, selected by then-Mayor Sheila Dixon after she sacked Commissioner Leonard Hamm amid rising crime.
Crime-fighting, of course, is any commissioner's top job, and under Bealefeld's tenure, crime has dropped significantly. Even accounting for population loss, the city's murder rate is at its lowest point since the late 1980s.
Though that follows a nationwide trend of declining crime — and Baltimore remains one of the deadliest cities in America — city officials and crime experts credit Bealefeld's strategy of focusing on guns and repeat offenders with driving the reductions here. Despite high-profile incidents of violence at the Inner Harbor during Fourth of July festivities, crime this year is up but still tracking closely with last year's lows.
"The reality is, chiefs of police nationwide work for a political leader, and their tenure is based on how they serve that political leader," said Sheldon Greenberg, director of the Johns Hopkins University Police Executive Leadership Program. "What politicians want first and foremost is good stats, and they're willing to forgo a lot of other things if their chiefs give them good statistics."
Greenberg said police chiefs should be accountable for what happens on their watch. "The question is, is it an isolated situation? These could be very isolated situations that happen to be coming to the fore in a tight time period, or they may arise when you start looking into things and find other things," he said.
In one city, Greenberg said, a police chief with just a few weeks on the job was run out of town after an officer shot and killed a teenage boy. In other cities, chiefs can weather scandal after scandal, crisis after crisis, for years. Problems may be deeply entrenched, and fixes can take years to be realized.
"There's a difference between mistakes and wrongdoing," he said.
Bealefeld, who declined a request for an interview and has been increasingly less responsive to the press, retains strong ties with key community leaders, who praise him even while criticizing the department as a whole.
Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, former president of the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said he has been able to reach out to Bealefeld when troubles arise, though he said the department too often "spins" negative news.
"We keep having these things happening," Cheatham said. "Fred has to account for it, and all of these signs point to there being a serious leadership problem within the Police Department."
Through a spokesman, City Council President Bernard "Jack" Young said the latest arrest of a city officer is "a black eye on the city." But the spokesman said Young, who once questioned whether the Police Department was covering up murders, wanted to sit down and talk with Bealefeld before commenting.
Larry Young, the radio show host, often has Bealefeld on his program, where he answers questions from the hosts but also from listeners. Young said the "bulk" of his callers are of the opinion that Bealefeld should be dismissed as commissioner, but Young said he personally isn't sure.
"I'm not there yet, and I guess it's because I have been able to talk to him, share concerns with him. He usually assigns someone to get right to it," Young said. "But I do believe he's going to be a political problem for the mayor."
Bealefeld, whose early tenure was marked by colorful news conferences in which he denounced criminals as "morons" and "knuckleheads," has been less outspoken over the past year. Within the department, he's lost several allies to retirement, including his deputy commissioner and his former partner.
But he was also reinvigorated when a foe, State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy, was defeated in the fall election and replaced by Gregg Bernstein.
Robert F. Cherry, president of the Fraternal Order of Police lodge, has sparred with Bealefeld and City Hall, but said Bealefeld has the union's support.
"The police commissioner has clearly taken adequate steps once a situation arises where the integrity of our officers is called into question, making clear he won't tolerate any of that," Cherry said. "I think he deserves credit for that."
He praised Bealefeld's push for increased training, as well as his development of a leadership program for sergeants, who Cherry said need to be given more flexibility to discipline and direct officers on the streets.
Cherry said the agency remains mired in a morale problem, however, based on inadequate compensation and a perceived lack of support from City Hall.
Mayoral candidate Otis Rolley, who as Dixon's chief of staff recommended another candidate over Bealefeld, blamed the Police Department's problems on the current leadership in City Hall. He said budget cuts had caused the department's morale to plunge.
"What I've been seeing in terms of the spike in crime and the overall decline in morale in the department, reflects more on the city's overall leadership and specifically the mayor, than Bealefeld," he said. Police are "trying to do their best, but it can be very frustrating if you don't feel the mayor has your back."
Rolley said the recent scandals indicate that the department needs to make serious changes. "Whether it's the towing scandal or, more recently, heroin being dealt in the parking lot of the station, it's ridiculous and it needs to be fixed," he said.
Sun reporter Julie Scharper contributed to this article.