Apologies all around on cops' anonymous gun use

The Baltimore Sun

The police commissioner apologized.

"Yes, sir, point taken," he said to a city councilman.

"I take full responsibility," he said again, to another elected watchdog.

"The fault rests with me," the contrite commissioner repeated.

The City Council hauled Frederick H. Bealefeld III in front of the public safety committee to address concerns about a new policy of not releasing, at least not immediately, the names of police officers who shoot people, for fear that angry civilians would seek retribution.

One by one, council members grilled the commissioner, who played the role of humble public servant to perfection, bowing to the Representatives of the People. He had done wrong, and he was truly, truly sorry. Council members had sent him a letter full of vitriol, charging that his policy could "undermine the hard-earned, sacred trust between our police officers and the public they serve."

But that was a whole month ago. Now it turns out those very same council members have no problem with the new policy. In fact, they fell over each other praising Bealefeld and his work, his honesty and his integrity. "We're just trying to get this cleared up," James B. Kraft said, apparently forgetting who was supposed to be doing the apologizing.

Kraft, who used to be a public defender, wasn't done. "We don't want to put guys' names out on the street," he said. By "guys" he meant cops, a point he evidently felt he understated. He clarified later: "Unless the officer does something inappropriate, I don't think the names should ever be released."

The bandwagon was rolling, and his colleagues jumped.

"I for one am not going to try to micromanage your department," Councilman Robert W. Curran said at the hearing called by politicians who had previously sounded angry at missing a chance to micromanage the department.

"Everyone here is concerned about police officer safety," Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake said.

"I have no problems with your policies," Councilwoman Agnes B. Welch said, explaining that she was willing to give the chief wide leeway because, well, he's such a nice guy. "Because of you, I'm not going to oppose your policy."

The council is supposed to confirm the police chief, not anoint him King Bealefeld III.

But the council didn't let the noble commissioner off without any scrutiny - they had to get him to admit he was wrong about something.

So Bealefeld didn't have to apologize for his new policy of not naming cops who shoot people, much less change it, but he did have to apologize for not informing the City Council about his new policy of not naming cops who shoot people. Council members had read about this in, of all things, the newspaper.

"What is troubling to us as members of the council is that no one came to us about a policy change this significant and this major," the council president admonished.

To make matters worse, this new policy seemed to come from Bealefeld's new director of public information, Anthony Guglielmi, a man they hadn't even met, a man who hadn't even been paraded to their offices to shake hands and say hello, or brought to the council's catered-at-taxpayer-expense lunches, and who now seems to be making policy - policy that, it turns out, they at first didn't support because they felt snubbed, but now do support because they think it's a good idea.

They just couldn't explain it to their constituents, who were angry and demanding answers.

What were the good citizens of Baltimore asking?

We don't know. The council members never said.

Bealefeld reiterated that the names of officers involved in a shooting would be released should city prosecutors deem the shooting a crime or if internal investigators decide it violates departmental policy.

The trouble is there is no formal or consistent policy on releasing information about the end of investigations. We don't usually hear from prosectors when they don't indict or don't pursue an officer who shoots somebody, and the results of internal inquiries are almost never announced.

The committee members could've pressed Bealefeld to issue a statement at the end of each review. If the officer is cleared, he withholds the name but at least explains to the public that here is what my detectives did, here is what they found and here is why they concluded the officer acted appropriately. If the officer was wrong, then presumably Bealefeld would release the name as well.

But instead of trying to ensure that some measure of transparency is maintained in an increasingly secret process, the council members gave the commissioner a pass and revealed their own hypocrisy. While they lashed out at Bealefeld for failing to talk to them, they weren't even talking to each other. The commissioner had sent the committee a letter in January explaining the new policy, but it didn't reach the committee members until midway through Thursday's hearing.

"We're just getting the letter now," Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said.

She read through it quickly and asked whether Bealefeld could rewrite it to make it clearer. She suggested he use bullet points instead of paragraphs in some spots. That would make it less like a letter and more like, well, a policy.

But Kraft objected, arguing that bullet points might make the letter look too official. It might actually resemble a formal policy.

"I thought it was a policy?" a confused Clarke answered.

The committee chairman gaveled the hearing to a close. The public's work was done.

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