Mayor Catherine Pugh fired Baltimore’s top cop Friday, saying she had grown “impatient” with Commissioner Kevin Davis’ inability to stem the historic pace of killings in the city now stretching into a third year.
She named Deputy Commissioner Darryl D. De Sousa, the top commander in the Police Department’s patrol bureau, as Davis’ replacement, effective immediately, and said she would ask the City Council to make the appointment permanent.
“Crime is now spilling out all over the city, and we’ve got to focus,” Pugh said. “I am charging [De Sousa] and his staff to get on top of it to reduce the numbers and to reduce them quickly.”
Pugh said she informed Davis of her decision Friday morning. Davis did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
De Sousa, a personable commander who has also been involved in several controversies during his rise through the ranks in Baltimore, said at a morning news conference with Pugh that he “has a lot of respect” for Davis and wishes him well, but also knows city residents are “frustrated and they want answers and they want change.”
“And it’s going to happen,” he said, promising to put “waves” of officers to work uprooting violence along key corridors and in well-known “hot spots.”
The shift comes as Pugh has faced her own mounting criticism for the city’s homicide rate. Last year concluded with 343 killings, a per-capita record, after 318 killings in 2016 and 342 killings in 2015. Prior to that, there hadn’t been 300 homicides in Baltimore in a single year since 1999.
Davis was appointed acting commissioner in July 2015, after then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake fired former Commissioner Anthony Batts just as the current surge in violence was getting underway. At the time, the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray from injuries suffered in police custody and the subsequent rioting that April was still fresh. Pugh, then a state senator, came to the forefront of city politics in part by walking the streets of Baltimore at the height of the unrest, and took office in December 2016 after winning a mayoral race left open when Rawlings-Blake decided not to run for re-election.
Before Friday, Pugh had never publicly indicated anything but confidence in Davis, an intellectual cop deft at parrying criticisms in the spotlight and winning political support. The two had presented a united front time and time again as community leaders, activists and others asked why their approaches to crime weren’t working. They appeared in lockstep on the city’s commitment to its consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice, a process Davis championed and for which he earned praise from civil rights organizations. They jointly pitched a series of crime strategies in an effort to reassure city residents.
In recent months, Pugh had backed Davis’ assessment that the department was hundreds of officers short, despite a nearly half-billion-dollar annual budget. She had suggested that progress was being made in critical areas like officer recruitment and partnerships between police and other city agencies. Just last month, Pugh said the city was turning a corner in its crime fight, going from “out of control” to “trending in the right direction.”
In the last week, there hadn’t been a single homicide in the city.
But on Friday, Pugh announced she had lost faith in Davis.
“The fact is, we are not achieving the pace of progress that our residents have every right to expect in the weeks since we ended what was nearly a record year for homicides in the city of Baltimore,” she said.
Her surprise announcement sparked confusion at police headquarters after other commanders — including Deputy Commissioners Dean Palmere and Jason Johnson — lost their access to the building, according to sources. However, Pugh’s office chalked up the problem, and other issues with commanders’ cellphones, to a “technical issue” that it wouldn’t describe.
“There has been no one else who has been replaced outside of Police Commissioner Davis,” said Amanda Rodrigues-Smith, a mayoral spokeswoman.
Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the police union, said it would be normal for the new commissioner “to put his own people around him” and that he would expect a broader shakeup as De Sousa settles into the job.
Ryan said he supports De Sousa, and so do the department’s rank-and-file officers.
“Part of our problem is morale being down,” he said. “Everybody is looking forward to working with Darryl De Sousa because they know he knows what he’s doing and he knows Baltimore.”
Davis’ tenure, which began under a cloud of scrutiny for police after Gray’s death and the charging of six officers in his arrest, was largely defined by the violence but also by reform efforts under the consent decree and by a series of high-profile corruption scandals.
His termination comes days before the federal trial of two of eight Gun Trace Task Force officers indicted last year in a sweeping federal corruption investigation that exposed the unit was robbing criminals and citizens of drugs and cash, filing false court paperwork and making fraudulent overtime claims. Six of the officers have pleaded guilty.
It also comes as the department continues to investigate the shooting death of Detective Sean Suiter in West Baltimore, a case Davis had asked the FBI to take over before being rebuffed. Other high-profile scandals under Davis included revelations of a secret police spy plane flying over Baltimore, and of body-camera footage showing what defense attorneys alleged was officers planting drugs on criminal defendants.
The city entered into its consent decree last year, after a review by the Justice Department after the 2015 unrest found widespread discriminatory and unconstitutional policing in the department.
Pugh said her decision to replace Davis was “not done under a cloud” and that Davis “worked hard,” but that she wanted more creativity and innovation from her police commissioner.
De Sousa, who described himself as “a chess player” who has always been focused on the operational side of policing, said changes would begin “ASAP.” He cited an initiative, in the works for weeks, to send a “surplus of officers” in waves to target hot spots, major traffic corridors and “violent repeat offenders” to drive down violence
“I have a real strong message for the trigger-pullers, and it’s [that] we’re coming after them,” he said. “It’s going to be at an accelerated pace.”
He said the initiative, begun Friday morning, would “last a while.” But he did not provide details, including where he was pulling “waves” of officers from in a department Pugh and Davis have lamented as being massively understaffed.
A new contract for De Sousa, who made just over $150,000 in fiscal 2017, was not available Friday. The City Council isn’t likely to schedule a confirmation hearing for De Sousa before the week of Feb. 5.
The council confirmed Davis as the permanent commissioner in October 2015 with a five-year, $200,000 annual contract. Under the contract, Davis is eligible to receive 75 percent of one year's salary — or $150,000 — if he is fired without cause.
Baltimore Solicitor Andre Davis declined to comment on whether Davis would receive that payout, or another for unused leave.
City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young said he stands “firmly behind” Pugh in her selection of De Sousa to replace Davis and believes it “will be greeted warmly throughout the Police Department” and the city.
“Darryl is a student of community policing and understands that the way forward will require a concerted reconciliation process to help repair trust between the department and the public at large,” Young said in a statement.
City Councilman Brandon Scott, chair of the public safety committee, said Pugh “has made a great decision” picking De Sousa, whom he has known since he was a kid in Park Heights and De Sousa was a patrol officer there.
“He understands every aspect of our city and what needs to happen as far as the Police Department’s role in improving Baltimore and making Baltimore a safer place,” Scott said, praising De Sousa’s longtime roots in the community.
Batts was hired from California and Davis from a law enforcement career in Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties. De Sousa, a city resident, is a 30-year veteran who joined the city police force in 1988 and has worked in a variety of positions over the years. He was named deputy police commissioner in August 2015.
In 1995, De Sousa was involved in two separate shooting incidents that left three people dead. He shot one of the three in one incident, and was one of several officers who opened fire in the deaths of the two others — one of whom was a bystander.
Lt. Kenny Butler, a traffic commander and vice president of the police union, said he and Davis “didn’t always agree on things,” but that he believed Davis “had the best interest of the citizens” in mind. He said he also believes De Sousa, whom he worked with recently on developing the strategy to target violent traffic corridors, will “do a great job stepping in.”
“Darryl will be a very good leader,” he said. “He seeks input from his subordinates.”
Del. Curt Anderson, chair of Baltimore’s House delegation in Annapolis, said he can’t criticize Davis, who had “a tough, tough job” and made some progress mending community trust in police.
“It’s just that it wasn’t enough,” he said. “It wasn’t quick enough.”
Anderson said De Sousa will benefit from having many friends among rank-and-file officers in the department.
“If they’re going to think anybody has their backs, they ought to think that this guy does because they know him,” Anderson said.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Larry Hogan, who has repeatedly expressed confidence in Davis even as he expressed doubt about Pugh, said the governor looked forward to discussing with Pugh her decision to fire Davis.
On Friday morning, as news of De Sousa’s appointment and his plan to deploy more officers was making its way around the city, a shooter rushed into G Styles Barber Shop & Hair Salon in East Baltimore and shot a man in the barber’s chair, according to witnesses.
A customer, who gave his name only as Duwayne, 34, said police commissioners come and go, but “for us down here on the ground level, it doesn’t change.”
Baltimore Sun reporters Talia Richman, Erin Cox, Justin Fenton, Jessica Anderson, Yvonne Wenger and Tim Prudente contributed to this article.