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Bealefeld on the 'failed' drug war, 'The Wire,' and Coldplay

HomicideConservationDavid SimonColdplay

Over the weekend, Baltimore Sun magazine published excerpts from a Q&A with Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III. After five years of talking to bad guys with guns, features editor Sam Sessa got him to dish on some more light-hearted topics such as his favorite music and his solo hike on the Appalachian Trail. You can read that interview here

But Sam and the outgoing commissioner also talked the war on drugs, "The Wire," and his decision to retire. Here's what was left on the cutting room floor:

You were a drug cop. What do you think about the push to decriminalize marijuana?

I’ve done a fair job of avoiding too much second amendment stuff and too much legalization stuff. I’ve done a fair job staying away from that stuff. As a private citizen, I have my own viewpoint about it.

Professionally, I think our war on drugs was failed. That doesn’t mean the people who tried to do it were failures. We worked our rear ends off, and we did some great cases. I just think that we didn’t get much resolved. We invested a lot of this country’s blood and resources and didn’t achieve the results. Developing real educational and job opportunities for somebody would have been much more meaningful in neighborhoods than some of the work we built into putting people in jail. That’s why I think it was so misguided. We wound up alienating a lot of folks in building this gigantic jail system in our country.

We’ve alienated a lot of people that we rely on to make communities safer. As far as decriminalizing, one of the standards of our "Diamond Standard" training was being diplomatic. I always hope that our guys could differentiate between the value of taking a violent offender off the streets and some 16-year-old kid with a bag of weed in his pocket. To me, those two arrests are dramatically different. They don’t score as just one. They’re dramatically different. I’d hope that people understood that. As a society, that’s for us to cast our votes on. That’s a societal issue.

At the end of the day, my job is to figure out strategies to keep you safe. It’s not to fight the state legislature and say ‘I don’t believe in that law or this law.’ If you pass the law, I am legally bound to enforce it. But I have limited enforcement capabilities. I know jaywalking’s a crime and I know littering’s a crime. And I know running red lights is a crime. But I still have to get down to prioritizing what I want people to focus on first.

Go out and ask these cops today, ‘Did you ever get a letter from the commissioner – a commendatory letter?' If they answer yes, ask them what it was for. The past five years, I’ve sent out commendatory letters for gun arrests. I grew up – I have stacks of photos and CDs of us celebrating drug seizures, standing behind piles of dope and cash. The last five years, I’ve recognized getting guns from bad guys off the streets. Do that, you get a letter from me. … It’s what you prioritize.

I think that was a much better use under my tenure of our resources than trying to win the war on drugs in our city. The vast majority of our arrests are still drug arrests, because we get the vast majority of calls for drug offenses. But in terms of what we celebrate and focus on day in and day out, they love getting guns now. They love it.

What do you say when you meet people from outside the city, and they want to know if Baltimore’s as bad as it is on “The Wire?”

I’ve spent a lot of time in the last five years railing against that. I’ve had this open thing going back and forth with David Simon and Ed Burns. I’ve known those guys for almost 30 years now. I know what they’re about. I know what their agenda is. But I’ve always felt like it was my responsibility to be a cheerleader for this city, and be a cheerleader for this police department. That doesn’t mean I was an ostrich and kept my head in the sand. I’ve stood up for the failures, I’ve stood up for all the terrible stuff. But I know there’s a lot of really great things happening in this town, and if you give it a chance and form your own opinion, there’s a lot of great things this city has to offer.

Let me give you a good example. There’s this annual convention of tour groups – people that promote tourism in their communities for their governments. There was a lady from a coastal region in Australia – I want to say it was near the barrier reef. She ran some big tourist operation there, and she came here as part of that convention. They move the convention all over the world, and Baltimore hosted it either last year or the year before. She wrote us a letter, saying that she loved Baltimore, she had a great experience here, and she would not hesitate to recommend Baltimore to people. And she was glad she overcame her fears and perceptions based on only and strictly “The Wire.” She was not going to come here.

What a shame that that show has done that kind of damage worldwide on the perception of Baltimore. That’s the thing I rail against them about. All I’d like to see them do is accept responsibility for that narrative. They say, ‘our art is a reflection of the truth of what’s happening in the city.’ Their art is a reflection of 20-year old truth and a 20-year-old narrative. The fact of the matter is, they’re still sitting at the bar with their war buddies talking about the good old days. They don’t talk to anybody here now but malcontents and people that are cheesed off. They don’t come to me and say, ‘let us hear what you have going.’ They’ve never looked at the training. They’ve never looked at our strategy. We’ve done precisely what he spent the big chunk of his career railing against – the failed drug war. We were one of the few big cities in America that disengaged from that and dedicated ourselves to a strategy almost right out of his book: Focusing on the most violent offenders and achieving real serious results. But they just can’t overcome the negativity they have.

Did you keep a running tally of the murder count in your head?

When I arrived in 2008, I was fascinated by numerically what it would take to drop below the 254 number. I arrived at the notion that if we had 150 zeros – 150 days with no homicides – then we could make it, figuring that some days we’d have doubles and all that. I was counting down. I carry this little black book, and I would every day mark off the days with zeros. I figured if we averaged 11 or 12 a month, I could get to 150. We could get around there. At any rate, I was counting them down. You’re doing all the other stuff, it’s not just that, but I had a sense of where we were. In my mind, it wasn’t just that I knew what the homicide number was, I thought, ‘if we could get a zero, if we could get a zero tomorrow, if we could get three more days of zero, we have a shot.’ The closer we got, I knew the theory was holding out. Now, having gone through that exercise, I know it’s just about a solid core of work.

Did you do anything to celebrate getting less than 200 homicides?

I was on Federal Hill at midnight. It was a good moment for my deputy, Tony Barksdale, and I. It was a good moment for he and I. We shared a moment up there. The reason that instant was meaningful was because there were a lot of people who derided us coming in the door in 2007. You like to think that you don’t pay attention to your critics, but you hear it. You hear whispers. I heard people that at one time I had respect for saying things like, ‘They’re over their head, they’re not qualified.’ I heard that stuff. It was a good moment to say, ‘Kiss my tail, we’ve done something that none of you guys did and none of you guys thought possible.’ It was more of that than ‘let’s go get drunk.’ It’s in the books. It’s done. The home run record’s the home run record. No one’s going to remember how many larceny from autos Ed Norris had. No one’s going to remember how many drug arrests they had under Kevin Clark. Even with all my talk about ‘bad guys with guns,’ no one’s going to be able to tell you how many hand gun arrests there were. But everyone will know that homicide number. Even with the city being No. 6 in the nation, it’s going to continue being the thing that police commissioners in this city are judged on for a long time. Because there’s a long way to go.

I had an objective to drop that thing. Every year, drop it drop it drop it. I didn’t have a number. As much as everybody got caught up in the ‘you can make 200, you can make 200, you can make 200,’ I wasn’t thinking like that. I was thinking, ‘get this damn thing down, lower, lower lower still.’ It kind of surprised me, the momentum a little bit, because of the 200. 300 had so much attention. Then Mayor O’Malley set his goal as 175. … I knew what it would take to get below because I wanted to beat my predecessor.

And then you got it below 200 and said that’s it, I’m out of here.

I thought it would at the end of 2011, and I thought I would set a date. I had a lot of advice about what I should do and shouldn’t do. And then I went to South Africa on a trip. One of the things that trip gave me was a chance to think. I thought, ‘I love doing what I’m doing. Do it until you wake up and say I don’t want to do it anymore. Don’t set a day. Just do it until you say I don’t want to do it anymore.’

Did you just wake up one morning and say, ‘that’s it, I’m done.’

You start feeling the drag, the draw to be doing something else becomes greater than the draw to be doing this. … This job has affected [my family] just as much as it has affected me. Not to pinch you guys, but I could have just spent an hour talking to [my son]. But I do have an obligation here, and I have an obligation at 4 p.m. and I have an obligation at 6 p.m. And I’ve got to squeeze him in. That kid is like the hero of my life. My best friend in the whole world. And I’ve got to squeeze him in. I’m anxious for a time when I won’t have to squeeze him in. I don’t have to squeeze in time for my daughter, I wont’ have to squeeze in time for my wife. When she’s telling me something, I can hear her without thinking about dead bodies and what I have to do or, ‘I hope no one gets murdered in the next two hours so we can enjoy dinner.’ I always come home and hang my work shirt up and my pants, and leave all the collar pins and stuff on. I did that thinking when I get a phone call about an injured cop, I can pull my stuff on real quick. I’ll be ready to go. You know how firefighters set their boots up so they can jump into them? For me it was like that. Every time I took my uniform off, I hung it up there and thought about that: I might get a call tonight. I might get a call tonight. I’m anxious to let that part go.

 

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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