Baltimore Mayor Pugh defends ex-police chief De Sousa as he prepares to face tax charges in court

Mayor Catherine Pugh continued to defend former police commissioner Darryl De Sousa and his crime-fighting efforts Wednesday, even as violence in the city has ticked up, and federal investigators have expanded their probe beyond the tax charges that prompted his resignation.

“I own the appointment of Darryl De Sousa as commissioner for Baltimore City,” the mayor said at her weekly City Hall news conference. “I watched his work. I’m pleased with where we are in terms of reducing violence.

“At the same time, I don’t control people’s personal lives.”

The Pugh administration is now beginning a search for a commissioner to lead the beleagured department, the eighth largest city police force in the nation. Pugh reiterated Wednesday that she would look nationwide for applicants, but said she was also open to internal candidates.

Officials did not say how long the search would take, or whether the mayor’s team or a consultant would lead an effort that typically involves vigorous background checks — a process the mayor’s team has vowed to improve.

“I just want to make sure they’re carefully vetted, that we dot all of our ‘I’s and cross all of our ‘T’s,” the mayor said. “We want to make sure the next candidate for this particular position is well scrutinized.”

Pugh appointed De Sousa commissioner in January after firing Kevin Davis over what she said was her impatience with violence in the city. De Sousa, a 30-year veteran of the department, was seen as a popular choice with city officials, the public and rank-and-file officers.

De Sousa was charged last week with failing to file his federal tax returns for three years. Pugh initially expressed confidence in the commisisoner, but then suspended him Friday — the day her administration received a subpoena from federal prosecutors seeking financial documents related to De Sousa’s employment.

On Tuesday, Pugh accepted De Sousa’s resignation.

De Sousa acknowledged last week that he had not filed the three returns. The Maryland U.S. attorney’s office confirmed Wednesday that De Sousa is scheduled to make his first court appearance on Monday. Meanwhile, De Sousa retained a new attorney, Gerard P. Martin, who declined to comment.

For now, Gary Tuggle — a former high-ranking Drug Enforcement Administration agent whom De Sousa hired less than three months ago — is leading the Police Department as interim commissioner. It’s not clear how long Tuggle might be in charge, or whether he wants the job permanently.

Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young said he met with Tuggle on Wednesday morning and told him to stick with the plans and personnel put in place by De Sousa.

“You can’t keep changing your war strategy,” Young said. “We have to be focused.”

Pugh appointed De Sousa after being impressed with his performance implementing her mutli-agency violence reduction strategy. The approach brings together department leaders each morning to set priorities and use all of the city’s resources to fight crime.

“While I was over at the Police Department watching the command staff working with the Police Department,” she said, “I can tell you there was one person over there who among the command staff that was totally engaged.”

Pugh and Young highlighted that work and the city’s success in reducing violent crime during De Sousa’s brief tenure.

Crime had declined at the start of 2018 compared to last year, the most violent in recent history, but violence began to spike anew in April, and has continued this month. Even during the first quarter, there were more killings than during any comparable period in the last five years, with the exception of last year — which was the deadliest, per capita, on record.

The Democratic mayor said she initially expressed support for De Sousa after he was charged because she thought his failure to file his tax returns would not have stopped him from effectively leading the department.

“I supported commissioner De Sousa’s work, his ability to reduce violence in the city,” the mayor said. “I think you know the numbers bear the truth; we’re still trending downward. His ability to implement. I absolutely had faith in his ability to run the Police Department.”

After further discussions with her staff, Pugh decided to suspend De Sousa, with pay, while waiting for the charges to be resolved. On the day she suspended him, the city’s finance department received a subpoena seeking De Sousa’s tax records. The mayor declined to say whether receiving that subpoena was a factor in her decision.

Pugh also declined to say whether she asked De Sousa to resign.

“We received his resignation and I accepted it,” she said.

Young agreed that De Sousa’s charges would not have prevented him from continuing to be an effective commissioner.

“I was a little shocked that he resigned, because from what I know there’s many people who haven’t filed their income taxes longer than three years,” he said. “I don’t understand why he would be treated any different from the average citizen.”

Young said he supported the mayor’s decision to conduct a search for a new commissioner. He said a national search is essential.

“I’m one who believed in always coming from the ranks, but I think we need somebody from the outside to come in and change this Police Department,” he said.

The last time the city launched a national search for a new police commissioner was in 2012, after then-Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III announced his resignation.

Then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake appointed a panel to assist in the search for his replacement. The panel was headed by attorney Ken Thompson. Rawlings-Blake’s chief of staff served as the vice chair. The panel also included leaders of three local universities, a former city fire chief, then-city solicitor George Nilson, local businessmen, a co-chairman of the Baltimore Police Foundation, and Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum and the only member of the panel with law enforcement experience.

The city paid Wexler’s organization $25,000 to conduct the search and screen applicants.

The city sought candidates with bachelor’s degrees in a law enforcement field and five years of command-level experience, or applicants with a high school diploma with 10 years of command-level experience.

At the time the panel was established, Bealefeld had handed over day-to-day operations to one of his deputies, Anthony Barksdale.

Rawlings-Blake eventually hired Anthony Batts, a former police chief of Oakland, Calif., over Barksdale and other internal candidates.

Rawlings-Blake’s predecessor, Sheila Dixon, had also conducted a search for a police commissioner, but a less formal one. Her process was led by cabinet officials and a handful of community members, including her pastor, the Rev. Frank M. Reid III of Bethel AME Church. In 2007, Dixon offered the job to former District of Columbia Police Chief Charles M. Ramsey, but then rescinded the offer in favor of appointing Bealefeld.

Peter Moskos, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York who served briefly as a Baltimore police officer, said there might be about a dozen candidates outside the city and half a dozen inside qualified for the job.

“I do think speed matters in getting this done,” he said. “Until there’s a commissioner things aren't going to improve.”

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