Baltimore police chief De Sousa suspended amid federal tax charges, as his lawyers criticize prosecutors

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh said Friday she has suspended Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa with pay pending the resolution of three federal criminal tax charges against him, reversing course from the previous evening when she expressed continued support for him.

“Upon review of the circumstances surrounding Commissoner De Sousa's failure to file tax returns for successive years, I have placed him on paid suspension effective immediately,” Pugh said.

Deputy Commissioner Gary Tuggle, a former senior Drug Enforcement Administration official hired by De Sousa in March to oversee strategic and support services, will serve as acting commissioner in De Sousa’s absence, Pugh said.

The mayor wasn’t the only one to change course Friday. De Sousa and his lawyers criticized U.S. prosecutors after the commissioner on Thursday had taken a contrite posture toward the charges, which are misdemeanors.

Attorney Steven Silverman said De Sousa did not learn about the charges until after they were filed and that federal authorities did not give him a chance to explain or file the missing returns — an opportunity Silverman said taxpayers are usually provided.

“Criminal charges are usually a last resort by the government after the tax payer has ignored the government’s warning,” Silverman said in a statement. “Had the government made an inquiry prior to charging, the government would have learned that Commissioner De Sousa was in the process of seeking assistance from a professional tax consultant to file all past due returns.”

The police officers’ union and some state lawmakers on Thursday had called on De Sousa to be suspended, even as Pugh was saying that the commissioner retained her confidence. On Friday she praised De Sousa’s short tenure leading the police department, saying he has been an effective leader who has driven down crime.

“That said, I believe his suspension pending resolution of this matter is in the best interests of the Baltimore Police Department, the city of Baltimore and him personally,” Pugh said.

De Sousa’s suspension with pay is consistent with the discipline of rank-and-file officers who are accused of misdemeanor crimes. It is also department policy that officers must “fulfill their personal financial obligations.”

Asked whether a conviction would preclude De Sousa from returning to his position, Pugh said she didn’t know.

City Solicitor Andre Davis later said officers convicted of “certain misdemeanors” can continue to serve, but would not specify whether De Sousa’s charges fit that category.

It is unclear how long the federal prosecution of De Sousa will take. An initial court appearance had not been scheduled as of Friday afternoon.

Tuggle, a Baltimore native, said he spent much of Friday traveling across the city talking to officers about the transition and his intention to maintain De Sousa’s crime-fighting strategy, which he believes is effective.

“We’ve looked at some of the baddest of the bad in terms of the indivudals causing harm in communities,” Tuggle said. “We’re literally putting them on notice.”

He also said he feels empowered, as acting commissioner, to change course if necessary. “I am able to conduct the department in the way that I see best,” he added.

The decision to have De Sousa step back comes one day after a federal judge unsealed three misdemeanor tax charges against him. The charges allege De Sousa willfully failed to file federal tax returns in 2013, 2014 and 2015.

De Sousa, 53, admitted to not filing his taxes in a statement on Twitter on Thursday, saying his “only explanation” for not filing federal or state taxes in those years was that he “failed to sufficiently prioritize my personal affairs.”

De Sousa, a 30-year veteran of the city police force, faces up to a year in prison and $75,000 in fines.

Pugh, who appointed De Sousa commissioner in January after firing his predecessor, Kevin Davis, said she learned of the charges against him at the same time as the public when they were announced by the Maryland U.S. Attorney’s office in Baltimore.

The mayor’s immediate response to the news was to issue a statement Thursday saying that De Sousa retained her confidence and was “working to resolve this matter.”

A spokeman for the mayor said Pugh changed direction after she “deliberated further with all of the facts and with further discussion with Commissioner De Sousa, as well as with the City Solicitor and senior staff.”

Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the police union that represents rank-and-file members, late Thursday called for De Sousa to “do the right thing by taking a leave of absence.” The union declined to comment Friday on De Sousa’s suspension.

The City Council, which confirmed De Sousa’s appointment in February by a 14-1 vote without debate, has largely supported the commissioner since the charges were announced. Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young declined to comment on the charges against De Sousa or his suspension.

State lawmakers who represent the city in Annapolis on Thursday had called on De Sousa to step aside. On Friday Sen. Bill Ferguson and Del. Luke Clippinger said they were pleased with the suspension but not entirely satisfied.

Clippinger said De Sousa should have been honest with the mayor’s office during the vetting process about not filing his taxes, whether staff had asked him about taxes or not.

“It’s right that he was suspended, but I’m still concerned about the omission of a material fact when he was being hired and as part of the interview process,” Clippinger said. “The characterization that this was a mistake? A mistake is a couple missing deductions or something. Completely failing to do a return three times isn’t a mistake.”

Ferguson said the city is not in a position to go without a permanent police commissioner for any extended period of time, and the mayor should take steps to find a permanent replacement for De Sousa if the federal case is not resolved within days.

Although the allegations against De Sousa date back to before he was nominated to lead the police department, Pugh said he had been vetted “pretty well.”

“Let me just say I think we’ve learned a few lessons,” the mayor said.

Pugh tapped De Sousa after citing stubbornly high levels of violence under Davis’ tenure. She said that De Sousa’s suspension “will in no way impede our relentless effort to make our city safer.”

Tuggle agreed.

“We are laser-focused on reducing the level of violence in this city. The mayor’s vision and directive is to fix it, and that’s what I know this department is capable of doing,” Tuggle said. “We have some incredibly talented people who are incredibly dedicated to the mission. We don’t lack talent, we have a very strong strategy, and we’re in the process of executing it.”

Tuggle is a graduate of Coppin State University and holds advanced degrees from Johns Hopkins University, including master’s degrees in business administration and in government, with a concentration in national security studies. He joined the DEA in 1992 and rose through the ranks to leadership positions, including as assistant special agent in charge of the agency’s Baltimore office from 2013 to 2015. He later led the DEA’s Philadelphia office.

On Friday, he said his professional experience suits him well in his current role.

“I know about fixing things,” Tuggle said. “I’ve done it throughout my career with the DEA, taking very challenging problems and turning them around.”

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