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Acting Baltimore police chief De Sousa says he's committed to restoring trust during confirmation hearing

Baltimore residents have an opportunity to listen to and speak out about acting police commissioner Darryl De Sousa at the Baltimore City Council hearing. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun video)

They wanted to know how he would restore faith in the police department. How he would end the gun violence. How an insider of the Baltimore police could bring change to a force buffeted by scandal.

But mostly, Baltimoreans shared one message Wednesday for the man who would be their next top cop: Clean up the force.

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“Are there bad or corrupt cops in the Baltimore Police Department? Yes, there are,” Acting Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa said at a City Council hearing Wednesday evening. “Are we taking measures right now to find out who they are? Yes.”­

De Sousa, 53, appeared the council’s executive appointments committee and the public to answer questions and outline his plan to reform the department. At the conclusion, committee members voted 5-0 to send De Sousa’s nomination to the full council.

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Baltimore's police commissioner says "rooting out corrupt officers will be one of [his] highest priorities as police commissioner.

The hearing was likely the only chance for citizens to share their views on De Sousa before the council votes on whether to make his appointment permanent.

It followed the federal racketeering convictions this month of two former members of the corrupt police Gun Trace Task Force. Six other members had already pleaded guilty.

Days of testimony in the case revealed a rogue squad of cops acting as robbers, shaking down drug dealers and civilians and defrauding the city of overtime pay.

The scandal loomed over the hearing Wednesday. De Sousa, a 30-year veteran of the force, said watching the case unfold felt “like a Mike Tyson shot to the stomach.”

“It was probably the most awful thing I’ve seen here in my 30 years with the police department,” he said. “I would sincerely like to apologize for what they did to Baltimore, and I promise that this will not happen again.”

Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young asked what De Sousa would do to root out these “bad guys with badges.”

De Sousa said he plans to meet next week with the FBI to investigate allegations against other officers that emerged during the trial. He said the scandal will be used to develop a training curriculum for new officers. He has also said he will begin random polygraph testing and launch new units to expose corruption and to prevent overtime fraud.

“There have not been sufficient checks and balances within the police department to catch corruption,” he said.

Andrew Northrup, the chief attorney for the felony division of the Office of the Public Defender, said the trials revealed the failures of the department’s internal affairs office. He noted that the scandal was uncovered by federal agents, not by the department.

“But for this fortuity, these officers would still be out on the streets,” he told the council members. “There must be some recognition that the department’s internal affairs failed.”

De Sousa enjoyed the support of BUILD Baltimore, the influential nonprofit group of church leaders and activists. More than 100 BUILD members signed up to attend the hearing, organizers said, and their blue T-shirts filled the chambers.

“He’s got experience. He’s got a great reputation. There’s no red flags,” the Rev. Andrew Foster Connors said. “He’s got to end the culture of corruption.”

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Born in Jamaica, Queens, to a mother who worked as a pediatric nurse and a father who worked in advertising, De Sousa told the committee that he tied a cape around his neck as a boy and leapt from the window.

“I thought I was Superman at the time,” he said. “I was hoping to protect people.”

De Sousa joined the Baltimore Police Department in 1988.

Mayor Catherine E. Pugh promoted him to acting commissioner last month to succeed Kevin Davis. Pugh fired Davis after growing “impatient” with violent crime in the city.

De Sousa enjoys support on the council, including from Young, public safety committee chairman Brandon Scott and appointments committee chairman Robert Stokes.

Acting Baltimore Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa is decentralizing the two units that investigate shootings and robberies citywide, returning about 80 detectives from headquarters to the city’s nine district stations.

Baltimore suffered more than 300 homicides in each of the last three years. In 2017, the city saw the most killings per capita on record.

But violent crime had been trending down in the weeks before Davis’ firing, Jan. 19, and the trend has continued since his departure. Homicides, shootings and robberies all have declined year-over-year.

De Sousa stands to inherit a department under intense scrutiny over the violence, corruption and a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice.

He already has made moves to reshape the department, including appointing an entirely new top command staff. He has announced plans to decentralize the citywide shooting unit, sending 80 detectives back into the districts, and is considering reintroducing plainclothes units for drug and gun enforcement. Those moves would reverse changes introduced by Davis.

He has said reform is one of his top priorities, along with making sure that the city’s police officers have the support they need and are not made to second-guess themselves.

De Sousa has faced public scrutiny recently about two fatal shootings during his career, both in 1995. He was cleared of wrongdoing in both incidents.

Still, the acting commissioner has many supporters in Baltimore.

Retired police officer Ellison James watched the hearing from balcony. He remembered De Sousa from their days together at the police academy.

James recalled a drive by De Sousa to be first, whether running laps in the yard or showing up to study before classes. He laughed, too, at his nickname among the cadets: “Pretty Boy Darryl.”

In 2015, when James’ homes burned and his wife and daughter died, he recalled De Sousa was right there at the hospital. De Sousa took meals to him and took him shopping for new clothes.

“He wouldn’t let me pay for my stuff,” James said. “That’s just the type of person he is.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Christina Tkacik contributed to this article.

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