City Councilman and mayoral candidate Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. called yesterday for the resignation of Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm, stepping up the political battle over what has become the defining theme in this year's city elections.
The call for Hamm's resignation came after a night marked by yet another homicide - this time in Better Waverly - pushing Baltimore steadily toward 300 killings, a total not reached in almost a decade.
Mitchell, a mayoral candidate, made his announcement after a private meeting with the police commissioner, and he refused to offer any specific criticisms of Hamm.
"I really don't see a sense of urgency coming from the Police Department, and it starts at the top," Mitchell said. "I think it stems from a lack of direction, period. There needs to be a clear direction in terms of trying to avert what's happening out there during this crisis."
Hamm, through a Police Department spokesman, declined to comment.
Mayor Sheila Dixon, who is running for re-election, denounced Mitchell's statement as a "very cheap political shot," indicating that she is evaluating Hamm, among others.
"I think one of the things that people miss is the fact this period is interim, and I'm assessing all of my department heads," said Dixon, who was appointed mayor in January after Martin O'Malley's election as governor. "Am I happy? I have concerns with every department. But right now, at this moment, the commissioner, his command staff, police officers, all of us have to step up and work to make a difference in this city."
Dixon and Mitchell are among the top contenders in the Sept. 11 Democratic primary, which is expected to determine the city's next mayor.
Mitchell joins a small but growing group of city officials who are blaming Hamm for Baltimore's surging crime and other departmental problems.
Hamm came under fire this week for allegations that he misled pension board members about the terms of departure of his former deputy police commissioner of operations, Marcus Brown.
The board that approves pensions for retired Baltimore fire and police officers approved a full pension for Brown on Tuesday.
Stephan G. Fugate, chairman of the board, said the $55,529-a-year pension, plus health benefits, was approved based on a letter from Hamm indicating that Brown's job was eliminated - which Fugate alleged "is simply not true."
Thomas P. Taneyhill, executive director of the board, said Hamm's letter indicated that Brown was "removed" from his job, which would have been required for him to receive a pension despite less than 20 years in the department.
Brown left the department in January after 14 years of service to become chief of the Maryland Transportation Authority Police, where he makes $127,500 a year.
A city police spokesman declined to comment on the pension matter.
City Councilwoman Helen L. Holton, who chairs the Taxation and Finance Committee, said she is "very concerned" about reports of Brown's pension. "I am concerned about what's going on and how we got to such a place," she said.
City Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young said yesterday that he would encourage Dixon to ask for Hamm's resignation.
"I've been feeling this for a while now, but that was the last straw for me," Young said of the Brown pension. "I just don't like the way it was done."
Dixon has said she, too, is "very concerned" about the reports of how Brown's pension was handled and is requesting more explanation.
Del. Jill P. Carter, another mayoral candidate, has also called for Hamm's resignation, saying the onus should be on Dixon to fire him.
"I'm glad that Councilman Mitchell is following my lead," she said. "I've called for his resignation based on the public safety crisis that he [Hamm] has been unable to avert, and the most recent issue with the allegation of the false statement with Marcus Brown ... just further reinforces the need that he should go."
In a statement and interview, Mitchell only spoke in glowing terms of Hamm and his relationship with him, blaming a "lack of leadership" from Dixon for the city's crime "crisis."
"While the voters will have a chance to hold her accountable in September, we cannot wait that long to address this crisis," he said.
Mitchell's call for Hamm's resignation is a turnaround from just two days ago.
On Tuesday, when asked about whether he would keep Hamm on as commissioner, he said: "I will make that decision when I become mayor."
Some City Council members joined Dixon yesterday in branding Mitchell's announcement political.
"If there's a discussion to be had, then let's have it," said Shaun Adamec, a spokesperson for City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. "But that's a really big decision, and it's not something that anybody can take lightly and anything that anybody ought to be scoring cheap political points on."
City Council Vice President Robert W. Curran, who chairs the public safety subcommittee, said he is in full support of Hamm. "I think Commissioner Hamm needs to be allowed to continue his leadership and allow Mayor Dixon's crime plan to play out," he said.
Dixon has shifted away from the zero-tolerance policing of the previous administration, instead focusing on adding foot patrols, zeroing in on repeat violent criminals and expanding city services to troubled neighborhoods.
But a move to require officers from specialized departments to work on foot patrol met resistance from some quarters, and last week homicide detectives were exempted from the strategy.
Andrey Bundley, a mayoral candidate who ran four years ago, said it is "premature" to call for Hamm's resignation.
"That's irrelevant right now," he said. "It's just grandstanding when you're not in a position do that."
Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway Sr. said if elected as mayor, he would wait for "an honest assessment" of the commissioner's performance and would not fire him right away. "I don't know so much if it's the man or the plan."
Sun reporters Annie Linskey, John Fritze and Julie Turkewitz contributed to this article.