Once again, Baltimore's mayor has fired a police commissioner. Will it make a difference?

Every few years — usually when violent crime is rising — the mayor of Baltimore fires the police commissioner.

Martin O’Malley did it in 2004, using a SWAT team to oust Kevin Clark. Sheila Dixon fired Leonard Hamm amid a crime wave in 2007. And, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake axed Anthony Batts after the riot of 2015.

Now Mayor Catherine Pugh has made the familiar move, firing Police Commissioner Kevin Davis after a third consecutive year of more than 300 homicides, which raises a familiar question: Will this time make a difference?

Baltimore suffered 343 homicides in 2017 — the second most in a single year, and the most per capita in city history. More than 1,000 people were shot last year.

At the same time, the department has reeled from scandal to scandal. Officers have been accused of planting evidence and lying in court. Two members of the elite Gun Trace Task Force go on trial Monday on federal racketeering charges; six others already have pleaded guilty.

“I think it’s naive to think that simply changing police commissioners will solve all the problems in the Baltimore Police Department and crime in Baltimore City,” said Bishop Douglas Miles, a leader with influential church group BUILD. “We’ve been down this road before.”

Pugh turned the police department over to Darryl De Sousa, a 30-year veteran of the Baltimore Police Department who served as a deputy commissioner under Davis. The mayor said she had grown “impatient” with Davis’ efforts to reduce crime.

“My decision is based on the fact that we need to get these numbers down,” she said of crime.

Miles’ group has been sharply critical of Pugh’s efforts to fight crime. BUILD has pushed the mayor to release more detailed plans and to collaborate more closely with community groups and businesses. Miles, pastor of the Koinonia Baptist Church, said De Sousa needs to focus on rebuilding relations with the community and tackling corruption inside the department.

The department is already under a federal consent decree demanding reform after findings of unconstitutional policing. The agency was rocked this year by revelations of a corrupt Gun Trace Task Force accused of robbing people and planting evidence.

In one of his final interviews as commissioner, Davis described his department in bluntly negative terms.

“This is a dysfunctional police department,” he told The Baltimore Sun this month. “I’m telling you as a person who has seen what a healthy organization looks like. This is not one of them.”

Those comments recalled Batts, who as commissioner wrote in The Sun that he had inherited a department stuck in a “cycle of scandal, corruption and malfeasance.”

David Jaros, a professor of criminal law at the University of Baltimore, said Davis’ tenure included “significant failures” in his response to allegations of police corruption. Still, he said, the city’s crime problems can’t be blamed on his leadership alone.

“He was in the very difficult position of walking a tight rope between the demands of a police department that wanted to feel like it was supported after the Freddie Gray trials and, at the same time, the demands of a public that wanted recognition of the serious failures going on in the police department,” Jaros said.

Former Baltimore Police Commissioner Ed Norris said Davis was made a “scapegoat” for Baltimore’s crime problem.

“Davis was dealt a very bad hand coming in after the riots,” Norris said. “He came in when the department was angry and castrated. De Sousa has to make the police feel supported. They’ve got to feel he has their back.”

Baltimore’s problems run deeper than crime. One-third of children live in poverty. Hundreds suffer from lead poisoning. The unemployment rate for black Baltimoreans is 15 percent — about three times that of whites.

Johns Hopkins sociologist Stefanie A. Deluca said more effective policing can make a difference in the health of a city, but it will take breaking the cycle of concentrated poverty to produce long-lasting results.

“Baltimore has a history of deep racial residential segregation,” she said. “This is a poisonous root issue. … This is a crisis of community.”

Jim Bueermann, president of the nonprofit National Police Foundation, a Washington think tank, said many of the factors that lead to sustained violence are out of a police chief's hands.

"This is what happens to big-city chiefs," he said. "There's nothing fair about being a police chief. Nobody guarantees you that even if you're a nice guy, and you’re ethically based and do a great job, that you won't still lose your job in this business."

Pugh said she informed Davis Friday morning that she was replacing him. Davis did not respond to a request for comment.

The mayor noted in a press conference that crime is declining to start 2018. She has pledged to reduce violent crime this year by 10 to 20 percent, and to bring the homicide total under 300. Violent crime is down 27 percent over the first three weeks of 2018 compared with the same period last year.

The mayor has instituted daily meetings with 30 city agencies focused on fighting violent crime. She said Los Angeles Deputy Police Chief Sean Malinowski will visit Baltimore in February to provide advice.

Pugh said she hoped to see more new ideas from De Sousa.

“[Davis] worked hard, but I’m looking for new and creative, innovative ways to change what we’re seeing here every day,” she said.

De Sousa, 53, a native of New York City, came to Baltimore in 1983 to attend Morgan State University and stayed. He’s the department’s first homegrown commissioner since Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III. Batts and Davis, who followed Bealefeld, spent most of their careers outside the Baltimore Police Department.

De Sousa spoke Friday of a new initiative, in the works for weeks under Davis, to send a “surplus of officers” in waves to target hot spots, major traffic corridors and “violent repeat offenders” to drive down violence.

“Anybody that knows me knows that I’ve always been an operational-type guy,” De Sousa said. “Everybody that knows me knows I’m a chess player, and I don’t like to be outwitted.”

De Sousa was involved in two separate shootings in 1995 that left three people dead. He shot one of the three in one incident, and was one of several officers who opened fire in the other, killing a gunman and a bystander, who was hit by a bullet that ricocheted.

Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the police union that represents most city officers, said De Sousa has the respect of the rank and file.

“The major difference between Davis and De Sousa is De Sousa is homegrown,” Ryan said. “He grew up in the Baltimore Police Department. He knows what the real problems are inside the city. He knows the culture, he knows the issues. We’re behind him 100 percent. We are with him. The morale has already been boosted.”

Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore police officer who now teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said replacing Davis indicates the mayor was willing to hold police leadership accountable and opened the possibility of a change in direction.

“The fact this is seen so favorably by the rank and file of the police department is a good sign,” he said. “It’s the first good news they've gotten in three years now.”

There are several ways De Sousa could put his stamp on the department. At the news conference Friday, he said he would prioritize putting more officers on the street, which would likely mean cutting back in other areas. He could reorganize the leadership team in the department and change the balance between which decisions are made at headquarters and which at the district level.

De Sousa faces the challenge of laying out a clear vision of what policing looks like under a court-enforced consent decree. The department has agreed to improve its record on civil rights at the same time as it tackles the record violence wracking the city.

Norris, the former commissioner, blamed the consent decree, in part, for the decline in arrests and the rise in crime since the death of Gray and the riots of 2015.

“You got a softer, kinder police department,” he said. “How’d that work out for everybody?”

Norris said De Sousa’s message “has to be concise: we’re not report-takers, we’re not social workers — we’re the police. You can’t let the City Council or the mayor become the police commissioner.”

Moskos said there’s plenty of ideas about what police officers ought not to do, but little guidance on how they should approach their work, and that hurts morale.

“It was a certain feeling of impotence there,” he said. “Cops want to know what to do.”

Anthony Barksdale, a former acting police commissioner, remembered De Sousa working undercover and doing plainclothes work in the 1990s.

“He’s familiar with plainclothes — I hope he restores it,” Barksdale said. “This city is going to keep getting its ass kicked until criminals don’t know whether the car coming down the street has some knockers in it.”

He said he doesn’t believe De Sousa would have agreed to all the provisions of the consent decree.

“A commissioner familiar with Baltimore would’ve stood up to the DOJ,” Barksdale said. “I think Darryl could respectfully say, ‘This is what we’re up against in Eastern and Western Baltimore.’”

Barksdale said he was confident De Sousa could turn things around.

“He’s not going to be the guy you can come into Comstat and [fool],” he said. “He’s not the guy who gives people passes for too long. Darryl’s going to know when to say, ‘enough is enough,’

“I’m looking for big things. I think he can pull it off. He can do this.”

Baltimoreans look to New York as a big city that turned its crime problem around. Homicides there fell from more than 2,000 a year in 1990 to fewer than 300 in 2017.

But New York is a much wealthier city than Baltimore. New York has 13 times as many residents as Baltimore, but its budget is 30 times larger.

City Councilman Brandon Scott, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, said he’s glad the mayor hired from within the agency.

“The last time we hired from within the department, what did we get? We got the lowest violence ever in Baltimore. It can make and hopefully it will make a difference.”

But Scott said he doesn’t want to see the city gentrified like New York or Washington to drive down crime.

“Harlem isn’t Harlem anymore. The same thing for D.C.,” he said. “We don’t want to do it that way. We want to make Baltimore a safer place, but we don’t want to do it by pushing people out. We want to do it organically from within.”

Sun reporters Justin Fenton and Talia Richman contributed to this article.

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

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