Mayor's announcement creates new uncertainty for troubled police department

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Interim Police Commissioner Kevin Davis address a judge's decision Thursday to keep the trials of six police officers charged in the Freddie Gray case in Baltimore.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Interim Police Commissioner Kevin Davis address a judge's decision Thursday to keep the trials of six police officers charged in the Freddie Gray case in Baltimore. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore's embattled Police Department, confronting a spike in violent crime and added scrutiny after the death of Freddie Gray, is now facing months of uncertainty about its leadership.

With the announcement Friday that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake will not run for re-election, she and her top lieutenants became lame ducks.


Police leadership was thrown into flux after the mayor fired the Commissioner Anthony W. Batts in July. Kevin Davis has been serving on an interim basis since then. Even if Rawlings-Blake picks a permanent successor, her successor could impose change again.

The next mayor is likely to pick a police commissioner who has a similar policing philosophy, said Joe Thomas, an expert in law enforcement leadership at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. The general election is in November 2016.


"That's the one issue that's captured not the city's attention but the nation's attention: law enforcement in the city of Baltimore," Thomas said. "So I would envision a very public national search not long after the seating of the next mayor, whoever that person is."

The mayor said she based her decision to drop her bid for re-election partly on a need to focus less on politics and more on public safety.

After the April death of Gray from severe spinal injuries sustained in police custody, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch launched a civil rights investigation into city police and whether officers engage in patterns of using excessive force. Six officers have been charged in Gray's arrest and death; all have pleaded not guilty.

Justice officials earlier launched a review of police practices, in the wake of a Baltimore Sun investigation that found the city had paid nearly $6 million since 2011 in court judgments and settlements for lawsuits alleging police brutality and misconduct.

Police officials say they are working to repair community relations.

"The city is in a very critical time right now. We're working very hard to reform the Police Department. I am working very hard with the Department of Justice to cooperate with the patterns and practices investigation. That is critically important," Rawlings-Blake said Friday. "We have to get our city through six separate trials that will be held here in Baltimore."

Joe Domanick, associate director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said Baltimore's department faces daunting challenges.

"Baltimore is caught in the real complexity facing policing right now, which is that whoever becomes the mayor or police chief is going to be caught between a rock and a hard place," Domanick said.

"When you have the kind of violent crime that exists in Baltimore and the kind of traditional policing that exists in Baltimore, it's very, very difficult to reform that kind of department," he said.

Rawlings-Blake fired Batts amid heavy criticism of the Police Department's handling of the April unrest, including a period of rioting, looting and arson, that followed Gray's death. Violence also spiked afterward, and the number of homicides in July reached a record 45.

Rawlings-Blake said at the time that she removed Batts because his tenure had become a distraction. The mayor has expressed confidence in Davis and given him wide latitude in making key personnel and operational changes.

The police union also has expressed support for Davis, even as it slammed Rawlings-Blake this week for settling a civil claim with Gray's family before the criminal trials. The city agreed to pay the family $6.4 million.


On Friday, union President Gene Ryan issued a statement that welcomed new leadership.

"Rank and file and City leadership must always work as a team so that Baltimore is a place people want to live, work and visit," Ryan said in the statement. "We look forward to leadership that makes partnering with public safety a priority."

Davis, 46, said in a statement that the department "continues to work with the Rawlings-Blake administration to make our City safer. Public safety is paramount to the future of Baltimore." He declined to be interviewed for this article.

Davis' performance through the coming trials and for the remainder of Rawlings-Blake's term will be critical in determining whether he stays, said Jeffrey Ian Ross, a University of Baltimore criminologist.

"He has to show meaningful progress, reforms, that sort of thing. His mettle will be tested over the next few months in connection with whatever happens in response to the six trials," Ross said. "Let's say we have some sort of protest that gets out of control, if not a riot situation. To the extent the BPD can handle this with a minimum amount of criticism, then that will be ... a reflection on his leadership ability."

City Councilman Brandon Scott, vice chair of the public safety committee, said Davis "wants to be here" and will likely want to stay even though Rawlings-Blake isn't running for re-election.

"He wants to work and will work until he's told otherwise," Scott said. "I don't think he's the type of person who will change his mind in a blink of an eye."

"The Police Department doesn't rise and fall with one person. There are other commanders and police officers who know the situation we are in," Scott added. "When you're a soldier, you don't worry about who's the president, who's the general. You go out and do your job."

Davis previously said his priorities are reducing violent crime and improving community relations. His record in Baltimore is still in its infancy, but arrests have rebounded from a post-unrest dip and more guns are being taken off the street through partnerships with federal law enforcement agencies.

A fourth-generation public safety officer, Davis is making $172,850 as interim commissioner. Batts earned $201,700 a year.

Thomas, of the University of Maryland, said he believes Davis would seek the permanent position but that the next mayor is likely to pick a new commissioner over him.

"Davis is doing a fine job, but the scope of the challenge is so great that I don't think there's a choice. There is going to be somebody new stepping into this," Thomas said. "There are tens of thousands of candidates with experience in policing itself. That's not going to be in question. It's the ability to craft and then articulate a vision for how the Police Department is going to be different moving forward. That's the key."


Recommended on Baltimore Sun