O'Malley fires Baltimore police commissioner

Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark (left) and Mayor Martin O'Malley discuss the city's declining crime rate.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark (left) and Mayor Martin O'Malley discuss the city's declining crime rate. (Sun photo by Andre F. Chung)
Mayor Martin O'Malley fired his police commissioner yesterday morning, abruptly ending his public support of Kevin P. Clark and asserting that the domestic violence allegations made against the commissioner, although unsubstantiated, were proving a distraction to fighting crime.

The move ends the 21-month tenure of the former New York City police commander, who focused on clearing street corners of drug dealers and reducing violent crime but saw Baltimore's annual homicide rate climb last year for the first time since O'Malley took office in 1999.

Though O'Malley swept into office pledging to drastically reduce killing, the mayor said crime statistics weren't behind Clark's ouster. Instead O'Malley discussed the swirling questions about Clark's involvement in domestic disputes - both 15 years ago in New York and earlier this year in Baltimore.

Clark was involved in a May domestic dispute with his fiancee in North Baltimore, and O'Malley recently lost a legal battle to keep the investigation into the incident private. Upon releasing the investigative report this month, O'Malley and Clark faced new questions about the commissioner's past and future.

O'Malley has insisted the investigation didn't tell him anything he didn't know about Clark's past, but he acknowledged yesterday that its public circulation ate away at Clark's credibility in running the 3,200-officer department.

"Leadership involves the important element of perception," O'Malley said. "When that perception of leadership is eroded, it makes it impossible for that leader to continue on."

The dismissal appeared to end a four-year, two-commissioner influence of former New York City police commanders. It also marks the departure of O'Malley's third police commissioner in five years.

To replace Clark, O'Malley tapped Deputy Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm, a lifelong Baltimorean who rejoined the force in September amid speculation that he would ascend to the top job.

Hamm has already dismissed the two remaining New Yorkers on Clark's staff, and he has promised to pare the New York influence.

O'Malley said he will likely seek Hamm's confirmation as a permanent replacement. Yesterday the new top officer said he has been disturbed by the rapid turnover and declining morale within the Police Department.

"We need to bring back the old style we had and infuse it with the new style from New York," he said. "I'm a stabilizer."

Even Clark's supporters acknowledge that he never won over the city's police force as its commissioner.

They said he was an excellent police officer who is more comfortable patrolling the streets than playing politician. He was known for berating his top commanders during the department's weekly crime mapping meetings, not for mingling with officers.

As he pushed an aggressive style of policing to clear city street corners, Clark also churned through top commanders, including three chiefs of detectives during his tenure.

Clark initially received a mixed welcome from Baltimore. He began Feb. 3, 2003, as the surprise hire to replace former Commissioner Edward T. Norris, who had bolted to the State Police and was later convicted of corruption for misusing money as city commissioner.

Many had expected Acting Commissioner John McEntee, a veteran city officer, to inherit the top job instead of an unknown outsider.

O'Malley touted Clark's success in New York with fighting drugs. The pressure on Clark rose slightly after the homicide count increased last year to 271 from 253, and it mounted after Clark took until April of this year to release his crime fighting plan.

The pressure grew with this year's homicide count. It was at 249 last night, raising the possibility of reaching a disturbing benchmark of old: 300 homicides in one year.

But ultimately, Clark's undoing began May 15. Early that morning, he was involved in a domestic dispute with his fiancee.

At O'Malley's request, Howard County police agreed to conduct an independent investigation of the incident. Clark was placed on voluntary, paid suspension.

O'Malley announced June 2 that Howard County's report concluded that any charges against Clark were unsubstantiated, but the mayor refused to release it.

The Sun and WBAL-TV filed a lawsuit seeking access to the report, and O'Malley lost a five-month legal battle to keep it private. He released the report at 5 p.m. on Election Day.

The report confirms a lack of evidence to support domestic assault charges, but it states that investigators believe Clark's fiancee told officers stationed outside the couple's condominium that he had assaulted her.

It also states that Clark and his fiancee could not explain noise coming from their condo early that morning. And it notes what it calls "possible past ... domestic incidents or assaults involving Commissioner Clark."

Those past incidents include a 1989 abuse allegation that led New York police to place Clark on administrative duties for four months while officers investigated. The report does not say how the investigation was resolved, but Clark has said he was promoted and returned to work. The incident involved his wife, to whom he remains married.

The report raised questions about the background investigation that O'Malley conducted before hiring Clark. Though he said he knew about Clark's past, he said he hadn't delved into the commissioner's New York personnel file.

The questioning intensified Tuesday as The Sun and WBAL-TV obtained internal police memos in which top city officials suggested that investigative documents from the Clark case had been destroyed. Howard County officials said they merely destroyed a preliminary report that was nearly identical to the final draft.

As the city was answering questions about the document destruction, O'Malley was moving to get rid of Clark, according to city officials.

Those officials said O'Malley told Clark on Tuesday night that he could either resign or be fired. At 8:30 a.m. yesterday, the mayor fired the commissioner.

Clark said he was fired Tuesday night, according to state Del. Curtis S. Anderson, who said he spoke with the commissioner that day.

Under Clark's contract, being terminated entitles him to six months' salary, which works out to about $75,000, according to the mayor's office.

In announcing Clark's termination yesterday, O'Malley made vague references to a recent breakdown in trust and communication with Clark. As he sought to fire Clark yesterday, he apparently had trouble reaching the man with whom he used to exchange frequent messages via e-mail.

"There is a very important trust that needs to exist and a very important, solid line of communication that has to exist between any mayor and his or her police commissioner," O'Malley said. "That had been taking its hits and was very strained."

Clark did not return numerous phone calls yesterday, and he declined to be interviewed by WBAL-TV. But the Associated Press reported that Clark said, "There will be recourse."

Clark's attorney, Stuart Simms, also declined to comment. Simms intervened yesterday in the news media lawsuit against the city, seeking to keep records about Clark's past from being released.

A city Circuit Court judge has scheduled a hearing tomorrow in which he will determine what evidence gathered by Howard County should be made public.

Clark's dismissal sparked varied reaction among elected city leaders.

"It was in the best interest for the city of Baltimore that the commissioner move on," said Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr., a frequent Clark critic. "These allegations were not helping us fight violent crime in the city."

Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. said the mayor angered city residents by appearing with Clark just two weeks ago to declare a record reduction in crime and then announcing his support for Clark despite the release of the investigative report.

"My constituents are calling to ask me why he was fired if crime was down," Mitchell said. "There's more to the story than is being let on by the mayor."

Sun staff writers Doug Donovan and Laura Vozzella contributed to this article.

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