Baltimore Police Commissioner De Sousa resigns amid federal tax charges

Baltimore Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa resigned Tuesday amid a growing federal investigation into his personal finances and other private and professional affairs, prompting Mayor Catherine E. Pugh to announce a national search for his replacement just days after she expressed continued confidence in him.

De Sousa’s departure — after 30 years in the department and less than four months at its helm — comes amid revelations that the federal prosecutors who charged him last week with failing to file federal tax returns are probing deeper into his past. They have issued subpoenas to the city’s finance and police departments for a decade’s worth of information about his pay, travel, secondary jobs, taxes and internal affairs files, among other things.

De Sousa could not be reached for comment Tuesday, and one of his attorneys in the tax case declined to comment on his behalf.

Pugh said in a statement Tuesday that she had accepted De Sousa’s resignation and appointed Deputy Commissioner Gary Tuggle as interim commissioner.

She also wanted “to reassure all Baltimoreans that this development in no way alters our strategic efforts to reduce crime by addressing its root causes in our most neglected neighborhoods.”

However, many city observers and residents said they had major concerns — both with the allegations against De Sousa and with the Pugh administration’s vetting of top-tier appointees and difficulty stabilizing the city’s scandal-ridden police department at a time of intense scrutiny and sweeping federal oversight.

“This can’t be good. It means more chaos. It means more lack of leadership,” said Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore police officer who is now a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “You need a strong leader who can stick around and have a vision and get things done. Who knows when there will be another commissioner and whether the commissioner will be good? It’s another punch.”

Tony Dawson, a longtime activist in Belair-Edison, had praised the personable De Sousa at the commissioner’s confirmation hearing before the City Council in February. On Tuesday, he said he now wonders if that was a mistake.

“I lose some integrity because I put my support out there for him. I kind of feel as though people look at me in a different light as well now,” Dawson said. “In the time that we’re living in now, where the community is skeptical about policing, I think it’s better that Baltimore City has a chief of police that doesn’t have those ethical problems. It brings a bad light on the city, and even though I’m a supporter of his, I don’t support what happened with the tax thing.”

Brendan Walsh, a longtime West Baltimore soup kitchen operator and resident, had expressed concerns at De Sousa’s confirmation hearing about his involvement in two different police shootings in which three people were killed in the 1990s. On Tuesday, he said the revelations of the last few days and the federal charges against De Sousa show the Pugh administration and City Council failed in their responsibilities to properly vet him.

De Sousa was appointed commissioner on Jan. 19, the same day Pugh fired his predecessor, Kevin Davis, citing stubbornly high levels of violence. De Sousa was confirmed by the City Council in February on a 14-1 vote without debate.

“The council is as responsible as Pugh,” Walsh said. “They never asked him any hard questions at all.”

Council members have expressed disappointment in De Sousa in recent days, but largely tried to pass the responsibility for his hiring and vetting onto Pugh. City Councilman Brandon Scott, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, said De Sousa’s resignation and other recent turmoil in the police department’s upper ranks comes at a time when the city can’t “afford those distractions,” and reiterated past calls for the commissioner position to be replaced with a board of commissioners.

“This just shows that we should have done this a long time ago,” Scott said.

De Sousa is charged with three federal misdemeanor counts of willfully failing to file federal income tax returns in 2013, 2014 and 2015. After the charges were unsealed Thursday, De Sousa admitted in a statement on Twitter that he did not file state or federal tax returns in those years, but said he did have taxes withheld from his police salary and had filed returns in 2016 and for an extension in 2017. He wrote his “only explanation” was that he had “failed to sufficiently prioritize [his] personal affairs.”

Pugh on Thursday had referred to De Sousa’s failure to file returns as a “mistake,” and expressed her full confidence in him. On Friday, she suspended him with pay pending the resolution of the federal case. De Sousa’s attorneys then issued a statement criticizing federal prosecutors for not giving him the opportunity to rectify his tax situation before charging him criminally.

De Sousa is not incarcerated, but faces up to a year in prison and a $25,000 fine for each charge. A date had not been set for his initial appearance in court. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Baltimore declined to comment on his resignation.

As commissioner, De Sousa was earning $210,000. By resigning, he is not eligible to receive severance, but is eligible to be paid out for accrued leave and other benefits, according to his contract.

The city is under a federal consent decree that mandates sweeping reforms to the department, after the Justice Department in 2016 found a pattern of widespread unconstitutional and discriminatory policing practices. The police department is also reeling from the federal prosecution of the Gun Trace Task Force, whose members were convicted of a broad conspiracy that involved robbing residents and stealing and reselling guns and drugs on the street.

Tuggle could not be reached for comment Tuesday, but said in an department-wide email that his “focus is on crime, the Consent Decree, and moving this agency forward.”

“We have a long way to go, but I know you are all up for the challenge,” Tuggle wrote to the officers. “Thank you for your professionalism during these tough times. We will succeed because you all are the professionals who keep our agency moving forward.”

Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the city police union, said in a statement Tuesday that union members “are anxious to put these events behind us and hope that Mayor Pugh can quickly find a suitable replacement” for De Sousa.

“Our members deserve consistency in their leadership; however, as they are all highly trained professional law enforcement personnel, they will stay fully mission focused in the interim,” Ryan wrote.

Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby said her office was “focused on our mission to make Baltimore safer” and would work with Tuggle and the department “to make this transition as seamless as possible."

De Sousa’s tenure as commissioner is among the shortest in modern history, but not the shortest. Ronald L. Daniel served as commissioner under then-Mayor Martin O'Malley for just 88 days in 2000.

De Sousa was the first officer to rise through the department to the rank of commissioner since Frederick H. Bealefeld III, who served from 2007 to 2012. The two commissioners after Bealefeld, Anthony W. Batts and Kevin Davis, came from outside the department.

Del. Luke H. Clippinger, a Baltimore Democrat, had uttered harsh criticism after the federal charges were unsealed, saying they showed poor vetting on the part of Pugh’s administration and dishonesty on De Sousa’s part. On Tuesday, Clippinger said De Sousa was “right to resign,” and that Pugh “should ensure the person who vetted him also takes responsibility, today.”

De Sousa had enjoyed the support of BUILD Baltimore, the influential nonprofit group of church leaders and activists. His departure likely delays the reforms sought by BUILD, including an overhaul to internal affairs, better training for officers and increased foot patrols in violent neighborhoods, said the Rev. Andrew Foster Connors.

“It certainly doesn’t move things forward,” Foster Connors said. “He hasn’t been there long enough to be able to change anything.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Tim Prudente and Jessica Anderson contributed to this article.

krector@baltsun.com

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