Chaos overwhelms Baltimore Mayor Pugh's 'narrative'

Mayor Catherine Pugh says the media — and in particular, this newspaper — is too negative, playing up any “I got you moment” it can find rather than describing the good things that are happening here. We suppose she means we should be covering things like the grassroots cabinet she has quietly assembled to connect people who work every day to build a stronger Baltimore with each other and city agencies, as we did on the front page of Monday’s paper. Or the recent improvements in violent crime rates, as in the story in the Sunday paper a couple of weeks ago that analyzed the statistics crime-by-crime to demonstrate that Mayor Pugh is right to say things have been trending in the right direction. Or that the city is experiencing its longest streak without a homicide in three years, as The Sun reported over the weekend.

We get that Ms. Pugh was annoyed by the story The Sun ran late last month detailing her administration’s plans to overhaul two rooms in the mayor’s office suite to improve its facilities for live video broadcasts. That kind of thing never looks good; even though the money is coming from Comcast, not tax bills. And we didn’t believe for a second she isn’t actually reading or watching the coverage of the Gun Trace Task Force trial. When she said she was too busy running the city for that, it sounded like peevishness to us, not a serious answer, and she is hardly the first Baltimore mayor to get a little testy with the press corps. It happens, and it’s not a big deal.

What is a big deal, though, is whether the people of this city believe it is headed in the right direction, and between police corruption, crime, schools shuttered for lack of heat, $50,000 water bills, a subway shut down for a month and on and on, there is no lack of reasons why they don’t. Baltimore’s problems aren’t all Mayor Pugh’s fault. Some, like the subway, aren’t even in her authority to fix. But at a time when many Baltimore residents are on edge, we need to see clear, competent leadership from City Hall, and no matter how hard Mayor Pugh is working to provide it, avoidable mistakes by her administration keep getting in the way.

We supported Mayor Pugh’s decision last month to fire Police Commissioner Kevin Davis. It was a welcome signal to the public that she takes ownership of Baltimore’s crime problem. But her choice to replace him, veteran city officer Darryl De Sousa, has so far managed to reinforce the sense that the Baltimore Police Department is in a state of chaos.

On his way into office, he sought to cut off at least one commander’s access to files, phones and computers — in and of itself, an admission of problems in the department — but instead, a staff member cut off access for multiple top officials, and Mr. De Sousa was not only forced to backtrack but to explain, somewhat cryptically, what was going on. Then he announced that one of the officers charged in connection with Freddie Gray’s death would be transferred to Internal Affairs, only to say the next day that the memo bearing his name but signed by someone else had been in error. And the biggest mess followed his announcement last Thursday that he would name an old mentor, retired Baltimore officer Thomas Cassella, deputy commissioner for operations. He walked that one back the next day, too, after a memo surfaced purporting to list complaints against Mr. Cassella during his time in the department, two of which were listed as having been “sustained.” Late on Saturday, Mr. De Sousa issued yet another statement saying the memo was “incorrect.”

But the statement did little to convey the impression that everything is under control. Heck, it didn’t even spell Mr. Cassella’s name right. It said that “what occurred to him was unfortunate and unfair” and that “there are no sustained complaints against him involving race, religion, sex, or any other type of discrimination.” But are there other sustained complaints against him? Why did it take a day to figure out whether the memo was accurate, and why didn’t someone check it out before the announcement? And above all, is he the deputy commissioner or not?

Meanwhile, the Gun Trace Task Force guilty pleas and trial have unequivocally answered the question about whether the Baltimore Police Department can police itself. That such a widespread conspiracy could exist within the department for so long clearly demonstrates the inadequacy of Internal Affairs. Mayor Pugh’s tweet explaining that she is, in fact, paying attention to the trial says she is communicating closely with Mr. De Sousa about his plans to fix it, and the commissioner-designate has given some indications of his ideas, including an investigation into officers implicated by testimony in the trial, random integrity and polygraph tests and perhaps even moving internal affairs out of the police department altogether.

But there’s one reform to the police discipline process that would definitely help improve public confidence and for which Ms. Pugh has been advocating for years: Putting civilians on city trial boards. She pushed legislation to require that last year, to no avail, and in November, after the driver of the van in which Gray was injured was cleared by a trial board, Ms. Pugh said she would renew her effort this year. Yet Friday was the deadline to introduce legislation for it to be guaranteed a hearing, and no such bill has been introduced. Who dropped the ball?

We understand the mayor’s annoyance, shared by just about everyone who has ever had her job, that the bad news overwhelms the good. And we can certainly understand that it’s frustrating to be criticized for a stray remark at a news conference when your days and nights are spent trying to address the truly profound problems this city faces. We don’t question Mayor Pugh’s dedication to the city and her work ethic, but the task she faces requires more than that. She needs an administration that can execute her vision flawlessly. Getting people to buy into the narrative of a Baltimore turning the corner is hard enough. She doesn’t need unforced errors to make it harder.

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