Critics slam Baltimore police commissioner search, saying secrecy spurs confusion

After reports surfaced in Texas on Friday that Fort Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald had been selected as Baltimore’s next police commissioner, Mayor Catherine Pugh quickly refuted the story and said her administration was still vetting candidates. But she declined to answer additional questions.

That left many in Baltimore confused as to where the city stood in the search for its next chief — which was sadly nothing new, critics said.

For the past six months, Pugh’s administration has done everything in its power to maintain secrecy around the search, they said, sharing next to nothing about the process with the public and denying City Council requests for more information.

And that’s despite the fact that the administration, facing a violent crime epidemic, is under a federal consent decree mandating police transparency, has admitted to repeated failures in vetting high-level candidates and promised a transparent process for picking the next commissioner, they said.

“The way this process unveiled itself is an embarrassment to the city,” said Brandon Scott, chairman of the City Council’s public safety committee.

“The mayor’s actions are so self-evidently self-defeating and utterly inconsistent with her professed rhetoric, but that pattern has been repeated so many times that it’s no longer a surprise,” said David Rocah, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Maryland. “It's pathetic that it has become expected, but that feels like where we are in the city. It feels like everyone expects a gaping disconnect between action and rhetoric, and that’s precisely what we see and get.”

Rocah called the entire search process a “farce” — one that has been “depressing, demoralizing, pathetic, ridiculous, upsetting [and] incomprehensible.”

Pugh and aides did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The Pugh administration has said the new commissioner would be named by the end of this month, but has declined to name candidates or provide a shortlist of finalists.

Pugh had said there would be a listening tour to gather public input on the pending selection, but that tour never happened. City Solicitor Andre Davis at one point said a panel of seven people would consider applicants, but later said it was just three people, all with law enforcement ties. The administration has repeatedly declined to explain its vetting.

The last permanent police commissioner in the city, Darryl De Sousa, resigned in May after being indicted on federal criminal tax charges that are still pending. He publicly admitted to not filing his federal or state taxes for multiple years, but said it was an oversight he was trying to fix.

The current interim commissioner, Gary Tuggle, took his name out of the running for the permanent position earlier this month.

The secrecy around the search for his replacement has been criticized for months by police transparency advocates and civil rights organizations, who say the city should be providing the public with as much insight into the selection process as possible.

They say years of widespread discriminatory and unconstitutional policing in the city and a series of high-profile scandals of late have destroyed community trust in the department, and transparency is the way to win that trust back. They asked for the Pugh administration to publicly announce finalists for the position, so that the public could not only review their pasts, but ask them about their visions for the future.

Instead, they said, Pugh has turned away from the community in picking the next commissioner.

“We are really disappointed,” said Lydia Walther-Rodriguez, regional lead organizer for CASA de Maryland and convener of the Campaign for Justice, Safety and Jobs, a coalition of more than 30 grassroots and nonprofit organizations focused on police reforms in the state. “It wasn't transparent, and it wasn't inclusive of community voices.”

Walther-Rodriguez said her coalition had called for finalists’ names and resumes to be released to the public, “so the community members could see who the finalists were and potentially meet with the finalists.”

She said commenters in public forums about improving the police often cite the need for transparency — making it all the more concerning that the next commissioner is being appointed through a process that was not transparent.

Baltimore is not the only city in the country where police commissioner searches are conducted without making candidate information available to the public. And it’s not the first time Baltimoreans have been in the dark about a commissioner candidate, either. When former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake hired Commissioner Anthony Batts in 2012, the process was handled the same way.

But, this is the first time the process has played out this way since the unrest and rioting of 2015, the Justice Department’s findings of widespread unconstitutional and discriminatory policing in the department, and the signing of the federal consent decree mandating sweeping reforms and increased transparency within the police department.

The Pugh administration has cited confidentiality agreements with candidates for the position in refusing to name them. But why such confidentiality agreements are considered necessary is unclear.

Many cities throughout the U.S. have public processes for selecting police chiefs, wherein top candidates are named. Sometimes those candidates are put before the local community to answer questions.

Fitzgerald is certainly no stranger to that sort of process. In fact, he has been named as a finalist for a top police position in cities all across the country — from Bay City, Mich., to Allentown, Pa., (where he got the top job) to Chandler, Ariz.

In Atlantic Beach, S.C., in 2007, where he was also named a finalist, the process was so transparent that Town Manager Marcia Conner told the Myrtle Beach Sun-News that the town thought Fitzgerald was going to be its next chief, but couldn’t agree on a contract because the chief’s salary range was between $45,000 and $65,000 and Fitzgerald had asked for $78,000.

Councilman Scott said he has been asking City Hall for information on candidates for months, and has heard next to nothing in response. “Crickets,” he said.

Scott has called for Baltimore to create a board of commissioners that would oversee the police department and its chief. Anytime a new chief was needed, that board would publicly nominate several candidates to the mayor, he said. Other cities like Los Angeles already have such a system, he said.

Such “structural changes,” he said, are necessary to ensure “what’s in the best interest of the city.”

Rocah, of the ACLU, said there was “no rational explanation” for why candidates’ names can’t be shared with the public during such searches, “especially when there has been repeated public demand” for transparency.

“It should simply be expected that you say to candidates, ‘If you are not willing to be identified as a finalist for the position, then don’t bother applying for the job,’” he said.

Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said in a statement that her organization was disappointed Pugh “has not followed the lead of other cities in giving the public ample time to assess and interact with” candidates to be its next police commissioner, and hopes the final candidate will be made available to answer questions at public forums.

Walther-Rodriguez said she hoped the next commissioner would realize the process wasn’t transparent and take steps to make up for that.

“It’s going to be really crucial that the person who is appointed is committed to working with grassroots organizations, and is open to listen to community voices, and navigates in a really transparent manner,” she said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.

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