Bealefeld removes campaign signs as politicians rally around Jessamy

Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III has taken down the campaign signs that prompted accusations of impropriety from State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, but some officials continued to criticize his actions as they rallied behind the prosecutor.

Bealefeld's yard signs for attorney Gregg Bernstein were taken down Monday, before Jessamy's news conference Tuesday in which she questioned the police commissioner's integrity and called for a probe of whether he was politicking while on the job.

In an e-mail sent from his private account — as well as in brief remarks at an event promoting the seizure of marijuana plants — Bealefeld said fighting crime was his priority. He called the dispute over the campaign signs "distracting."

"We have to remain focused on the crime fight; that's the bottom line for me, for them," he said, motioning toward a group of officers. "The city needs and demands that we stay focused."

At a community walk in Southwest Baltimore's troubled Carrollton Ridge neighborhood, community leaders, whom he knows on a first-name basis, pulled Bealefeld aside and whispered words of encouragement. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who appeared at the event, stood by Bealefeld, saying he has delivered results and is engaged with the community.

Asked whether his actions were appropriate, Rawlings-Blake said, "This is supposed to be a country based on free speech."

Jessamy, a 15-year incumbent, has enjoyed broad backing from much of the city's political establishment in her pursuit of a fourth full term, including a surprise vote of confidence from Gov. Martin O'Malley. On Wednesday, City Council President Bernard "Jack" Young voiced his support for Jessamy, while Clerk of Courts Frank Conaway, whose son is a state senator and daughter is a city councilwoman, issued a news release calling for Bealefeld's resignation.

Former Mayor Sheila Dixon, who appointed Bealefeld, condemned his actions and said she would have ordered him to remove the signs were she still in power.

"I thought it was very inappropriate for him to be engaged in the political process," said Dixon. "In both his position as well as the Deputy Mayor [Christopher Thomaskutty, who also displayed Bernstein signs], they have to deal so much with whomever is the state's attorney on policy and crime-fighting efforts. If Pat wins, the relationship is strained."

Dixon, who resigned in February as part of a plea deal to settle criminal charges of perjury and embezzlement, said she is backing Jessamy in next month's primary.

"There are a lot of things that the public hasn't seen, that her office has really been on the forefront of," Dixon said.

But Dixon also said that Bealefeld, the longest-serving commissioner in a decade with three years on the job, was doing an "excellent job" fighting crime and should not be ordered to step down.

Bealefeld's support of Bernstein — placing two campaign signs in the yard of his Southwest Baltimore home and releasing a statement that said police need a "true partner" in the state's attorney's office — is unprecedented for a city police commissioner.

Past commissioners had sparred with Jessamy, and said her office undermined police and often failed to effectively prosecute violent offenders. But observers said his high-stakes gamble in supporting Bernstein indicated a deeply held belief that a change in the prosecutor's office is necessary.

Jessamy has called his actions inappropriate and on Tuesday held a news conference asking for an independent investigation of whether Bealefeld was soliciting support for Bernstein on the job. She said Bealefeld's support for her opponent was an attempt to elect a "rubber stamp" that would overlook police misconduct.

She gave him a deadline of 48 hours to accept her request for an independent investigation into discussions Bealefeld had with one of her supporters, which she contends were improper, but there was no indication that Bealefeld would agree to one. He suggested that she file a complaint with the "appropriate administrative agency."

Bernstein's campaign said the dispute has prompted a wave of new support and requests for campaign signs, which had to be reordered because of high demand. The campaign would not say how many signs had been requested.

Jessamy and Bernstein were scheduled to debate Thursday during a noon radio appearance on Sun columnist Dan Rodricks' radio show on WYPR-FM.

In Carrollton Ridge, Lena Lewis said her neighborhood has significant problems. But she said it has been noticeably safer in the past year, with less open-air drug dealing.

Lewis, 48, said she had heard of the dispute between Bealefeld and Jessamy, adding that "everybody has their own opinion — why can't [Bealefeld]?"

Young, council president, said he is supporting Jessamy but was not asking for Bealefeld's resignation, said spokesman Lester Davis.

Conaway, however, issued a news release saying that Bealefeld "demonstrated that he lacks the political impartiality, sound judgment and honesty required of a police commissioner." He said Bealefeld had "lost the trust of a substantial portion of the citizenry" and "must leave."

In an interview, Conaway said he thought Bealefeld had done a good job as police commissioner but feared that his position might intimidate voters.

"I think he needs to go, or at least take a leave of absence until the election is over," Conaway said. "Then he can campaign for Mr. Bernstein all he wants."

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