Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III isn't endorsing anyone in the city state's attorney's race.
Citizen Fred Bealefeld, however, has a clear preference.
Lawn signs for defense attorney Gregg Bernstein, who is challenging Patricia C. Jessamy in the Democratic primary, sprouted up on the lawn of Bealefeld's Southwest Baltimore home this week. Bealefeld declined an interview, but through a department spokesman issued a carefully worded statement saying police "are doing everything we can to reduce crime in our city."
"The State's Attorney's job is to prosecute the bad guys and make sure they go to jail. We are working hard to do our job and we need a true partner in the state's attorney's office," the statement said.
That Bealefeld favors an alternative to 15-year incumbent Jessamy hardly comes as a surprise. Relations between their agencies have been lukewarm at best for years, and Bealefeld has said police are too often blamed by prosecutors for failures in the courtroom.
But Bealefeld is taking what is believed to be an unprecedented step in making known his choice of Jessamy's chief opponent in the Democratic primary, something generally frowned upon in law enforcement. The stakes could be high, observers said, testing the political capital that Bealefeld has built up in three years as commissioner and risking further strains with the office should Jessamy prevail.
While prosecutors often work in conjunction with the Police Department, the state's attorney's office also has the final say on which cases go to court, as well as whether to pursue charges against police officers accused of misconduct. Jessamy, who could not be reached for this article, said in an appearance last week that "she is not, and will never be, a rubber stamp for the police."
"When police do wrong, Pat Jessamy responds," Jessamy said at an event in Northwest Baltimore.
Police Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi stressed that Bealefeld won't be doing any campaign appearances or using department resources or city time to promote Bernstein, and argued that his efforts were not an "endorsement" in the traditional sense.
"He's expressing his right as an individual and citizen, and not acting in any official capacity," Guglielmi said. "No commercials, nothing like that."
Christopher Dreisbach, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education's Division of Public Safety Leadership whose focus includes law enforcement ethics, said Bealefeld as a citizen has a clear right to advocate for a candidate. He said he believes it's also Bealefeld's professional duty to advocate for the best interests of police.
"If they weren't adversarial, there might be a different issue at stake. … But I don't think he's giving anything away at this point," said Dreisbach. "Is he shooting himself in the foot? Possibly, but he has the right to do so, and [the consequences] will be determined down the road."
Few big city chiefs seem to have waded into such territory. Los Angeles Chief William J. Bratton, well-respected in police circles, endorsed candidates in several races in 2009, including the position of legal counsel for the Police Department. Bratton took heat for the endorsements; the Los Angeles Times called them "unbecoming" and noted that the Christopher Commission, which reviewed the LAPD after the Rodney King beating, had written that it was "unseemly for the chief to use that position to influence the political process." Bratton's candidates lost.
City Councilman and former LAPD chief Bernard Parks said in an interview that chiefs at all times represent their department, regardless what clothes they are wearing.
"The chief of police doesn't lose their first amendment rights, but there's no first amendment right to be chief of police," Parks said.
Parks said stepping into politics can alienate a chief from those who regulate the department and make decisions over its budget. Support a winning candidate, and the public may think that official is in the chief's debt. Back the loser, and risk years of being on the outs with the winner.
As for a chief such as Bealefeld whose feelings are largely well-known, Parks said, "You can do your job quite well without aligning yourself with a particular candidate."
In Baltimore, the police department's general orders seem unclear, stating that members of the department "shall not participate in political activity other than as may be provided for by law and to exercise their right of suffrage, for which sufficient time shall be allowed." Longtime officers and political observers couldn't recall past commissioners stating preferences in past state's attorney races, though former commissioner Leonard Hamm appeared at a 2005 Jessamy fundraiser — he was photographed dancing with her — but said he did not formally endorse her.
"I've never heard of an outright political endorsement by a commissioner," said former police union president Gary McLhinney, who got flak for appearing in uniform in a mayoral candidate's ad in 1999.
Chiefs around the region have made political donations, according to records, though almost all have been to the county executive in their jurisdiction or the governor — and not state's attorney's races. Maryland State Police Superintendent Terrence Sheridan, the former chief in Baltimore County, has contributed $800 combined to Gov. Martin O'Malley and Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith.
Former Anne Arundel County Chief Patrick Shanahan contributed more than $5,000 to then-County Executive Janet Owens while he led the Police Department, and current chief James P. Teare gave $1,000 to the current executive, John Leopold. Bealefeld has not made any campaign contributions in the past several election cycles, records show.
Anne Arundel State's Attorney Frank Weathersbee said he has sought endorsement from former chiefs, but couldn't recall whether active chiefs had participated in his campaigns. He said receiving an endorsement from an active chief would make sense, as no one else knows better about the working relationship between police and prosecutors.
But what if the active chief endorsed Weathersbee's opponent?
"Well, that does make it awkward," Weathersbee said. "That makes working together somewhat strained, to say the least."
The September primary could be Jessamy's first significant challenge in eight years and has already featured one endorsement that turned heads: Gov. Martin O'Malley, who publicly sparred with Jessamy for years, has now voiced support for her in public appearances. Jessamy had earlier accused O'Malley of being behind the Bernstein candidacy.
On her campaign website, Jessamy lists endorsements from state Sens. Nathaniel McFadden, Joan Carter Conaway, Lisa Gladden and Catherine Pugh, Del. Talmadge Branch, city sheriff John Anderson and City Councilwoman Belinda Conaway.
Bernstein was a late entry to the state's attorney's race, and to date has not secured any other high-profile endorsements beyond a group of trial lawyers headlined by defense attorney Warren Brown.
But he has a connection to Bealefeld — Bernstein's wife, Sheryl Goldstein, is the mayor's top aide on crime who has worked closely with Bealefeld since they were appointed by former Mayor Sheila Dixon. Goldstein is on a leave of absence from City Hall and active in her husband's campaign. Deputy Mayor Christopher Thomaskutty also has Bernstein signs in the window of his South Baltimore home.
"In order to fight crime effectively, the state's attorney needs to work cooperatively with law enforcement," a Bernstein campaign spokesperson said. "We welcome the support of everyone who shares Gregg Bernstein's vision to make Baltimore a safer city."
Bealefeld, Goldstein and Thomaskutty all serve at the pleasure of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who a spokesman said is sitting out the fall political races.
Beyond the ethics of the endorsement is the question of how effective it will be. Bealefeld said in an appearance on Maryland Public Television that 80 percent of city police live outside Baltimore, "so the election's not going to rest on their individual votes."
The city Fraternal Order of Police's track record on endorsements has been spotty in recent years — it endorsed Keiffer Mitchell and Michael Sarbanes for mayor and city council president, and then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in the 2006 gubernatorial election. Union president Robert F. Cherry was travelling and unavailable to comment for this article, though the FOP is expected to support Bernstein.
McLhinney, the longtime union president, let out a whoop when told Bealefeld had yard signs for Bernstein. He said the commissioner has nothing to lose.
"To say [the relationship] could get worse is not realistic, because it can't get any worse," McLhinney said.
Eugene O'Donnell, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, agreed with Dreisbach that police should let their political preferences be known.
"He should be hands up and quite honestly it's refreshing to see cops joining in some of these conversations and telling us what they really think," said O'Donnell, a former police officer and prosecutor. "It's like the military, they're expected to sit there and grit their teeth. I think we have a much better society when cops from top to bottom are more vocal."