As a leading consultant to the nation’s largest law enforcement agencies, Chuck Wexler has helped cities across the country find new police chiefs.
Baltimore, he said, is different.
“I don’t think there is a more challenging police chief job in the country right now,” said Wexler, the longtime executive director of the nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum. “It’s facing a number of challenges: A consent decree, significant crime and issues rebuilding trust.”
The sudden resignation of new Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa in May has left Baltimore searching for a new top cop for the third time in three years. The turnover at the top has drawn wide concern, not least from the federal judge overseeing the city’s consent decree with the Justice Department to reform policing.
Judge James K. Bredar warned last month that “A lack of consistent, strong leadership can have cascading ill effects,” and can render the police department’s good faith in the consent decree “almost irrelevant.”
He said the city needs a leader who can not only run the department, but inspire its officers.
So who would want the job?
“This is a challenging position in a profession that is among the most difficult in the nation,” the city wrote in its job posting. “The rewards for the successful police commissioner are substantial.”
The deadline to apply was Friday. City Solicitor Andre Davis said more than 20 people had applied. Davis said a commissioner would be named by the end of October.
“The Mayor has been very pleased by the keen interest expressed nationally in the police commissioner position,” he said in a statement. “The process is underway and the Mayor hopes to have a resolution in the near future. We will communicate as appropriate to the media and to the citizens of Baltimore.”
Officials won’t name the applicants, citing confidentiality agreements.
Interim Commissioner Gary Tuggle, who has been leading the department since May, has publicly expressed interest in the job, as has Maj. Sabrina Tapp-Harper, who spent 26 years on the force before retiring in 2014 and joining the sheriff’s office.
Baltimore appears to be the only major U.S. city currently searching for a new chief. Los Angeles, Seattle and Denver all recently named internal candidates to lead their departments.
Baltimore faces several well-documented and widely publicized challenges. Since the death of Freddie Gray and the riots of 2015, homicides have spiked to historic highs, Justice Department investigators have accused the department of widespread discriminatory and unconstitutional policing and eight members of the formerly elite Gun Trace Task Force have been convicted on federal racketeering charges.
The department’s reputation has been tarnished further this month by the viral video that shows a city officer tackling and beating a man, fracturing his jaw and ribs. Officer Arthur Williams was suspended, and resigned.
Williams has been charged with second-degree assault; has has pleaded not guilty.
During that span, the city has burned through three commissioners. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake fired Anthony Batts in July 2015 amid backlash over Gray’s death and the riots, and as homicides began to spike. Mayor Catherine Pugh fired Kevin Davis in January after the city passed 300 homicides for the third year in a row. De Sousa resigned in May after federal authorities charged him with failing to file his tax returns for three years.
Cameron McLay, a former police chief in Pittsburgh who was recently a finalist to lead Seattle’s department, called the turnover in Baltimore a “disincentive.”
“The decision to take on a chief job in a major United States city is a serious one right now,” he said. “It’s an extraordinarily high-liability position.”
McLay said the violence in Baltimore can be brought under control, but it could take years. Candidates will be concerned they’ll get booted if they fail to turn conditions around immediately.
“Political stability is really important,” he said. “People like me are looking at the rotating chief’s chair — at that volatility — which will be a disincentive.”
Mattie C. Provost, a retired assistant police chief in Houston, said prospective candidates should not be turned off by Baltimore’s challenges. Then she was informed of the turnover in Baltimore.
“Oh my goodness,” she said.
She still thought the problems could be fixed.
“You need somebody that’s committed and will let everyone on the force know that ‘I’m not going anywhere.’ ”
National Black Police Association Chairwoman Sonia Pruitt, a lieutenant in the Montgomery County Police Department, said prospective applicants “might feel the citizenry might be difficult.”
She said officers in communities such as Baltimore, where distrust of the police is strong, must work to understand their concerns.
“You have to embrace that policing is a service industry,” she said. “We’re at a crossroads in policing, where we really need to focus on our relationship and trust building … The person who runs the department should be someone of high integrity, someone who understands you cannot be successful in a policing environment without that.”
The ideal candidate, she said, is someone with “a true feel for Baltimore.”
Pugh said last month that Wexler’s group would help in the search, offering advice and encouraging qualified applicants to apply.
The Police Executive Research Forum, a research and policy organization in Washington that provides management services, technical assistance and executive education to law enforcement agencies across the country, has assisted in searches for Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Boston and many other cities.
Baltimore retained the organization for its last nationwide search. The organization recommended Batts, the former chief of Oakland and Long Beach, Calif. He came to Baltimore in 2012.
Wexler said Baltimore’s challenges offer opportunities “for the right person.”
“Other cities have been in this place before,” Wexler said.
He noted the turnaround in the District of Columbia two decades ago under Charles M. Ramsey. Crime fell 40 percent during Ramsey’s eight-year tenure as police chief.
Ramsey nearly became Baltimore’s police commissioner in 2007. He now serves as a deputy monitor for the team that’s overseeing the Baltimore consent decree.
To draw talent, Wexler said, the city has to be willing to pay a competitive salary, and to spend money to provide a team to support the new leader.