Choosing a well-respected local veteran over a prized out-of-town candidate, Mayor Sheila Dixon named Frederick H. Bealefeld III yesterday as police commissioner and charged him with tackling a homicide crisis that ranks Baltimore among the nation's most violent cities.
Backing the strategy of community-based crime-fighting developed by Dixon's administration, Bealefeld -- who has served as acting commissioner since July -- would become chief as the city remains on pace to exceed 300 homicides and as police morale has rebounded only slightly from extraordinary depths this summer.
Despite the challenges, the 26-year Police Department veteran confidently vowed to reduce crime while simultaneously stabilizing a department still reeling from turnover in recent years. Early indications suggest Bealefeld is already making limited progress on both fronts, and many rank-and-file officers said yesterday that they are pleased he will be in charge.
"What a police department needs is a very steady hand moving it in an affirmative direction," said Bealefeld, who is 45 and lives with his wife and two children in Harford County. "Police agencies don't respond very well to sports car maneuvering. You have to react to crime situations, but you have to have some long-term vision and dedicate yourself to that."
Bealefeld -- who started his career in the Western District, following his great-grandfather and grandfather into policing -- was selected by Dixon as acting commissioner to replace Leonard D. Hamm, who was asked to resign in July. Bealefeld was the deputy commissioner of operations at the time and was largely responsible for the department's day-to-day management.
As Dixon campaigned for a full term this summer -- and was repeatedly criticized by political opponents on crime -- she conducted a national search to fill the police job. She interviewed eight candidates, she said, including former Washington police chief Charles H. Ramsey, who oversaw a sharp drop in crime in the nation's capital before stepping down last year.
Dixon said she spoke with former Washington Mayor Anthony A. Williams and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley to discuss candidates. At one point, she said, Ramsey and Bealefeld were neck-and-neck for the job -- indistinguishable, in her words. Dixon said she chose Bealefeld because of his performance over the past several weeks.
There also appears to have been increasing sentiment that the correct move was to hire a commissioner from within the department -- in contrast to her predecessor, now-Gov. Martin O'Malley, who brought in police commissioners from other cities, especially in the early years of his tenure.
"I've had great confidence with what I saw," Dixon said of Bealefeld's past weeks as acting commissioner. "A thoughtful, experienced and decisive leader, Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld is up to the task."
Since July 20, Bealefeld's first day on the job, there have been 53 homicides, down from 65 during the same period last year, a police spokesman said. Shootings were down to 105 from 156 during that same period. Despite progress made in past weeks, overall year-to-date homicides are up 8 percent over last year, and shootings are up 11 percent.
"We will reduce that murder rate," Bealefeld promised. "We will."
When Dixon took office in January, she began steering the department away from its zero-tolerance approach, in which police aggressively targeted quality-of-life crimes in an effort to discourage larger crimes. In some neighborhoods, that approach had been met with criticism that police were being overly antagonistic with residents.
Offering few specifics, Bealefeld said he supports Dixon's general crime-fighting strategy as well as the use of foot patrols and the gun registry she recently signed into law. He said he does not intend to stray from the "solid, core strategy" that Dixon has put in place and said he will continue to rely on relationships with state and federal law enforcement agencies that she has worked to restore after years of tension.
He specifically named Anthony E. Barksdale, the acting deputy commissioner of operations, and Deborah A. Owens, acting deputy commissioner of the department's administrative bureau, as police officials he believes are furthering that mission.
As the Democratic primary campaign unfolded this summer -- and the police union negotiated a new labor contract -- morale within the department and rank-and-file officers' relations with the mayor's office seemed to be particularly poor. Since then, a new contract has been inked, and the head of the city's police union said yesterday that he supports Bealefeld for the job.
"It will add some stability to the police agency," said Paul M. Blair Jr., president of the city's Fraternal Order of Police, a union that endorsed Dixon's leading opponent. "The last thing we needed was to have the whole command staff replaced and a whole new command staff brought in. ... We don't need another outsider with no ties to the Baltimore community coming in here to try to tell us how to police."
Dixon denied rumors that Ramsey had essentially priced himself out of the job by asking for a salary significantly higher than those of past commissioners. But it is clear that Ramsey would have immediately brought in his own leadership team -- something he said would be crucial to getting a quick start, In contrast, Bealefeld said there will be few major changes in staff.
"We had talked about three or four people that I felt could be of some value. I made that clear upfront," said Ramsey, who said he was told of Dixon's decision Wednesday night. "It basically boils down to a choice that the mayor had to make. [Bealefeld] knows the city; he knows the department. I assume that he has an effective crime-fighting strategy, and time will tell. I wish him well."
Dixon aides said they are negotiating a contract and do not know how much Bealefeld will be paid. Asked his current salary, Bealefeld said he makes $120,000 a year plus an additional $6,600 a year for serving as acting commissioner. Hamm, the previous commissioner, received a $162,000 salary.
Baltimore's charter requires department heads to be city residents, and Bealefeld is expected to move into the city in the next several months.
First, he must be confirmed by the City Council, a process that will begin with the introduction of his nomination Oct. 15. His appointment is then expected to receive a public hearing in early November.
Given Dixon's strong victory in the Sept. 11 Democratic primary -- and the fact that a majority of council members stood by her side as she announced Bealefeld's nomination yesterday -- he is expected to be easily confirmed.
Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, whose agency has long had a strained relationship with the Police Department, said she was happy to have someone named "so that we can move forward and not continue to operate in an interim capacity."
Asked if the selection was a good choice, Jessamy said it is hard to gauge his performance as acting commissioner because it was such a short period.
"I don't know who he was compared to, I was not part of the selection process, so I don't know if there were others who applied," Jessamy said. "I'm ready, willing and able to work to make our systems safer and to ensure that public safety in this city is a priority."
Jack Baker, president of the Southern District Police Community Relations Council, said he was pleased with the decision.
"We had a letter-writing campaign from every neighborhood organization that we knew of," Baker said of local support for Bealefeld. "All of the districts are going to be celebrating."
Baker, an Otterbein resident, met the acting commissioner when Bealefeld was a major in the Southern District. The two worked together in the area for years, and Baker attributes all of his community policing knowledge -- he leads Citizens on Patrol walks throughout the city -- to Bealefeld.
Baker recalled an instance when Bealefeld was on a COP walk several years ago and chased down a drug dealer.
"Nothing gets by him," he said. "He doesn't play around. He's not a politician. He's a cop."
Hamm had been simultaneously criticized for not doing enough to reduce the homicide rate and for leading a department that some said was overly aggressive. Hamm and Dixon were berated this year at a community meeting organized by the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, head of the organization's local chapter, said, "Being that he's now commissioner, we look forward to working with him. We are quite well-aware of him. He's been in the city all of his life."
Cheatham would not comment on whether the organization is disappointed that Dixon did not select an African-American commissioner for a city that is predominantly black. Baltimore's last white commissioner was Edward T. Norris.
Dixon said race was not a factor in her decision.
"We have to get beyond the color of our skin and look at the quality and the character of the person," she said. "Right now, I want the best people to take this city to the next level, and they can be green."
Sun reporter Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.