Kevin Davis is an intelligent and affable fellow who, as police commissioner, must have known he had an impossible job in post-Freddie Gray Baltimore: Reform a department he considered dysfunctional, recruit and train dozens of new officers for an understaffed and demoralized force, and restore public confidence and trust in law enforcement.
All that while dealing with a nasty contagion: Angry, violent men of all ages killing each other with guns, often in retribution for other killings, across a sprawling city with long stretches of abandoned housing.
All that while, during his first year as commissioner, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby was pursuing charges against six of his officers in a series of trials that failed to secure a single conviction but kept tensions from the unrest of April 2015 in the atmosphere.
All that while under the hard eye of the U.S. Department of Justice.
All that while serving a mayor who had not hired him, who bristled at suggestions (in this column and elsewhere) that she was slow to react to the crime crisis, and who, with Davis standing beside her at a City Hall press conference, declared crime “out of control.”
That was in early November, after a spate of carjackings, muggings and robberies against the dreary drumbeat of near-daily homicides. That should have been a sign that Catherine Pugh had finally donned the cape of urgency about crime — and that Davis’ days were numbered.
Seventy days, to be exact.
On Friday, Pugh decided it was time for a change, and Davis was gone. We were 19 days into 2018, with another 11 homicides already, when Pugh fired the earnest commissioner she inherited from Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
The reaction to Davis’ firing has not been shock, given the pace of homicides and the growing impatience — some might even call it despondence — of Baltimoreans who live, work and own businesses and restaurants in this city.
As the killings continued, spinning surreal around parts of Baltimore that are generally stable and still growing, you could see, in shaking heads with despairing brows, a fear of profound social collapse, an intensified foreboding. In all of New York City, with more than 13 times the population, there were not as many homicides last year as in Baltimore — a fine year-end note to take us into the holidays.
Against all this, we must thank Davis for trying to turn things around.
It will be up to his replacement, Darryl De Sousa, to prove what no commissioner has been able to prove since Fred Bealefeld was in charge a decade ago: That cops can target “bad guys with guns” and reduce shootings and homicides without alienating half of the city with heavy-handed, civil rights-violating tactics.
In 2007, homicides were on the rise and headed to 300 for the year when then-Mayor Sheila Dixon made a change, getting the resignation of Leonard Hamm and replacing him with Bealefeld. The city ended the year with 282 killings. By 2011, the homicide count had dropped below 200, to 197.
Unfortunately, Bealefeld lasted only one more year under Dixon’s successor, Rawlings-Blake. There were 217 homicides in 2012, the year Bealefeld resigned. There were 211 in 2014, the year Mosby unseated Gregg Bernstein as state’s attorney. Homicides went off the charts after that, with three consecutive years of 300-plus killings.
Who gets the blame for this long, violent, debilitating siege? Pugh answered part of that question on Friday. In June, it will be up to voters to decide if Mosby gets to keep her job. There have been more than 1,000 homicides in Baltimore since she took office.
Watching from the outside, I thought Kevin Davis had his responsibilities well balanced, emphasizing internal reforms while also implementing strategies to get the crime numbers down. But I guess not. With all the other issues he had to deal with — add the opioid crisis, throw in the corrupt Gun Trace Task Force — he was unable to put down the homicidal hell that rose from the streets in 2015.
Now someone else will give it a try.
Failure should never be an option. But this time, more than any time that I can think of, the city cannot take further failure.
With so many distressing stories (killings, corruption, schools without heat) and depressing scenes (homeless people in tents, panhandlers at intersections, young men arrested every day with guns and drugs) — with that pileup of bad, you can’t even see the good, never mind the brilliant. But it’s all around us, and if I did not know that to be a fact, I would have become one of those miserable cynics who hate the city and take glee in its problems. I would have lost all faith in Baltimore 20 years ago.
To those much younger than me, who believe in this old city — especially young cops: Don’t give up. Support the new guy. Insist on success.