Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz is replacing longtime Police Chief Jim Johnson with former Chief Terry Sheridan, he said in a surprise announcement Wednesday.
Johnson, 58, has led the county Police Department since 2007 — a period when violent crime has dropped 26 percent, according to department figures. He will retire at the end of the month, Kamenetz said.
Sheridan, 73, served as county chief from 1996 until 2007, when he was named superintendent of the Maryland State Police.
The announcement follows criticism of the department on issues including the deaths last year of Korryn Gaines and Tawon Boyd and its handling of sexual assault cases.
"Obviously, we have some issues [on which] we want to continue to make some progress," Kamenetz told The Baltimore Sun on Wednesday. He cited sexual assault investigations, diversity within the department and relations between police and the community.
Johnson and Sheridan declined to be interviewed Wednesday.
Kamenetz, who is considering a run for governor next year, said in October the county would accelerate its body-camera program, review the way it investigates sexual assaults, and evaluate police training on behavioral health, cultural competence and de-escalation strategies.
He declined to comment directly on Johnson's departure. In a statement, he said the chief had served the county "faithfully and honorably," but "at this time we choose to go in a different direction."
County Council members expressed surprise.
"I'm shocked," said Councilwoman Cathy Bevins, a Middle River Democrat. "I can't believe it."
Bevins said she deeply admired Johnson, who is from the Essex area.
"He's someone that has rose up through the ranks, being an East Side boy," she said.
Cole Weston, president of the Baltimore County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 4, said Johnson brought stability to the day-to-day operations of the department, which employs more than 1,900 sworn officers.
"This is a professional agency," Weston said. "The men and women out there do a tremendous job out there serving the public. The clearance rates are exceptional. ... So the comment of choosing to go in a different direction is concerning to us."
The agency faced scrutiny over a string of incidents last year.
Gaines, a 23-year-old Randallstown woman, was shot and killed by a tactical officer during an hours-long standoff at her apartment in August. County prosecutors ruled that the officer's actions were legally justified, but Gaines' family is now suing.
Boyd, 21, died in September after an encounter with county police and paramedics at his Middle River home. The state medical examiner's office ruled last month that his death was caused by drugs.
Both Gaines and Boyd were black. Their deaths drew national attention at a time of growing scrutiny of police interactions with minorities.
The department was also criticized for the number of sexual assault reports that officers concluded were unfounded, and for discarding rape kits.
During Sheridan's first tenure as county police chief, he was credited with improving community policing and curtailing a crime wave. He was chosen in 2007 by then-Gov. Martin O'Malley to serve as state police superintendent, a position he held until 2011.
He is currently a law enforcement adviser to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's intelligence office.
"He lives in Timonium, he knows our county well and we're really pleased he's able to come back and hit the ground running and keep moving the county forward in the direction of where we want our Police Department to go," Kamenetz said.
The county executive said he would submit Sheridan's name to the County Council for confirmation. If confirmed, he would be appointed to serve until the end of Kamenetz's term in December 2018.
County Councilman David Marks said he was taken aback by the announcement.
"I think it was very sudden," the Perry Hall Republican said. He called Johnson "an outstanding public servant."
Johnson began his career as a cadet in the county 911 center in 1979. Early on, he was an officer in the Essex precinct.
He rose through several leadership positions, including commander of patrol divisions on the west side of the county, commander of the internal affairs division, and colonel in charge of the operations bureau.
During his tenure as chief, violent crime in the county has fallen 26 percent, according to the department. He worked to increase representation of women and minority personnel within the agency.
Council Chairman Tom Quirk said Johnson "was very communicative with council members."
"I'm sorry to see him retire," the Catonsville Democrat said.
Councilman Todd Crandell also expressed surprise.
"I thought he was happy with his position, but I respect the decision to move on," the Dundalk Republican said.
Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger said he would miss Johnson. He called him a strong advocate for victims who moved the department "to the forefront of crime fighting."
Johnson serves as chairman of the National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence. He has testified before Congress and met with President Barack Obama on gun issues.
"I thought he represented us well," said County Councilman Julian Jones, a Woodstock Democrat.
Johnson earns an annual salary of about $254,000. That will also be Sheridan's salary, county spokeswoman Ellen Kobler said.
Details of Johnson's retirement package have not been finalized, officials said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.