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Baltimore County councilman questions police nominee Melissa Hyatt on city career

Melissa Hyatt retired from the Baltimore City police department last year and is now the Baltimore County police chief nominee. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun video)

A Baltimore County councilman on Tuesday questioned Melissa Hyatt, the nominee for county police chief, about her two-decade career in the Baltimore Police Department, expressing concern about corruption and other problems in the city agency.

Hyatt, who rose to the rank of colonel in the Baltimore department, appeared before the council ahead of a scheduled June 3 confirmation vote. County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., a Democrat, nominated her earlier this month to replace Chief Terrence Sheridan, who is retiring.

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Most of the questions Tuesday came from Councilman Julian Jones, a Woodstock Democrat, who asked Hyatt about issues including the city’s federal consent decree — which mandates sweeping police reforms after a Department of Justice investigation — and the city’s Gun Trace Task Force, a squad from which eight officers have been convicted of crimes ranging from robbing residents to committing overtime fraud.

At one point, Jones asked Hyatt whether, as a former city commander, she took responsibility for such problems in the department.

Hyatt did not directly answer “yes” or “no.” She said that she did weekly audits on overtime spending, and worked with the police department’s integrity unit when she had concerns about officers’ behavior.

“I can only speak about what I was able to control in my realm,” she said. “And I certainly had a reputation for not being easy to work for. I had strong standards, but what people would always say — they knew what my standards were, I was very clear about them, but I treated people very fairly.”

Hyatt told the council that the Gun Trace Task Force “never fell in my chain of command.”

Jones also asked Hyatt about her role as an incident commander in the 2015 unrest after the death of Freddie Gray. She said her role was “navigating deployment of resources, because there were a lot of places that needed help and not enough police officers.”

“The incident commander at that time was the police commissioner, but I was essentially running operations,” she said.

She called that period “a very trying time that we’ll look back on in the history of Baltimore City.”

“I think it was painful for everyone, from the citizens to the police officers, and it’s going to take a long time to recover from it,” Hyatt said.

Jones said after the meeting that he most likely will vote to confirm Hyatt, but “felt the need to ask the question” about responsibility for problems in the city.

“When you see those types of things happen, you can’t help but wonder, where is the supervision?” said Jones, who added that he would have preferred that Olszewski nominate a chief from within the county department.

Hyatt retired from the city police department last year and joined Johns Hopkins University and Medicine as vice president for security. If confirmed, she would be the first woman to serve as chief of the county police department, which has about 1,900 officers.

The nomination has drawn criticism from the Blue Guardians, which represents minority officers and supported an internal candidate. After the council meeting, Blue Guardians President Sgt. Anthony Russell said the public should have had the opportunity to question the nominee. He said he was also disappointed that council members didn’t ask about Hyatt’s crime-fighting record.

Russell said he and Blue Guardians Vice President Det. Winston McFarland planned to meet Wednesday with Hyatt at a meeting arranged by Deputy Administrative Officer Drew Vetter.

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They plan to discuss treatment of minorities in the police department, as well as other personnel issues, such as involuntary reassignments of officers, Russell said.

“This department needs someone who is going to directly deal with diversity, equity and inclusion,” Russell said. “We will try to formulate a plan to get on the same page.”

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