Baltimore's powerful police union voted unanimously last night to endorse City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. for mayor, sending Mayor Sheila Dixon a strong message that the city's rank and file is dissatisfied with her policing decisions.
The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3 also voted last night to endorse Michael Sarbanes, a longtime civic activist, for City Council president, choosing him over current Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake.
The endorsements are to be announced at a news conference at 11 a.m. today at the FOP Lodge in Hampden.
"I'm humbled," Mitchell said last night. "I went by the FOP to thank the rank and file for their confidence in me."
Paul M. Blair Jr., president of the city's police union, which represents 4,800 current and retired city police officers, said the membership thinks Mitchell is best poised to "change the status quo."
"We believe we will see change and progress under him," Blair said. "And he'll be a mayor that realizes that law enforcement is very critical in the city and would make it his top priority that we're properly staffed and given the proper equipment and leadership."
Mitchell and Dixon, who was appointed mayor in January when Martin O'Malley became governor, are the leading candidates in the race for mayor, according to a poll conducted this month for The Sun. Dixon held a comfortable lead.
In response to the FOP's endorsement of Mitchell, Martha McKenna, a spokeswoman for the Dixon campaign, said fighting crime is "not about political endorsements."
"It's about the community coming together with clergy, with police and with their neighbors to take responsibility for the crime in our communities and to work together to solve the problem," she said.
Jayson Williams, Mitchell's campaign manager, said the endorsement reflects "shifting momentum" in the race.
"The reality of an escalating murder crisis and an administration both unwilling and unable to work with our police officers has citizens looking for a change in leadership, and Keiffer Mitchell is that change," Williams said in a statement.
Yesterday's endorsement was the first major union endorsement for Mitchell.
Dixon has gained the backing of many of the city's most influential unions, including the Metropolitan Baltimore Council of AFL-CIO Unions and 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East.
In addition to votes, the support of organized labor brings an instant volunteer base to run a campaign.
The endorsement of Sarbanes was surprising because Rawlings-Blake, seeking her first election to a position she was appointed to in January, has made reaching out to the FOP a priority.
Rawlings-Blake has also received significant union backing, receiving endorsements from the AFL-CIO council and 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East.
The FOP made its endorsement at a tumultuous time for the city's police.
Homicides and shootings are up sharply in the city, with the homicide rate on a pace to exceed 300 for the first time since 1999.
Last week, Dixon asked for the resignation of Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm, sparking leadership changes that continue.
Dixon's political rivals have hammered away at her crime-fighting strategy. Mitchell has promised to increase police salaries and fill vacancies in the ranks.
Yesterday, Mitchell hand-delivered a letter to U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein, requesting that the Department of Justice conduct an independent audit of the city's crime statistics. Mitchell is questioning whether overall violent crime can be down when homicides and nonfatal shootings are higher than in previous years.
As the homicide rate continues to soar, Dixon has pledged to stick to the basics of her crime-fighting strategy.
Upon taking office, the mayor moved away from O'Malley's zero-tolerance policy, which had led to mass arrests for sometimes minor crimes, and shifted to more foot patrols, community outreach and enforcement aimed at the city's most violent offenders.
Dixon's administration is engaging in a de facto negotiation for a new contract with police. Technically, the administration is still at the table with the Fire Department, but the police - who are working under a contract extension - are closely monitoring the situation with the Fire Department for clues to their own bargaining status.
The FOP did not endorse anyone in the 2003 election. In 1999, it backed Council President Lawrence A. Bell III over O'Malley, then a councilman.
In the past two gubernatorial elections, the FOP endorsed former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican.
Dixon and Mitchell are among eight Democrats who will vie in the Sept. 11 primary for mayor.
Sarbanes faces three competitors in the primary for City Council president.
The police union interviewed candidates for mayor and City Council president, and a panel made recommendations that were reviewed by the organization's board of directors and the membership.
Sun reporter John Fritze contributed to this article.