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City's challenges could make search for next police commissioner a tough task

Mayor Rawlings-Blake hasn't settled on process for appointing a new police commissioner

The spike in violent crime in Baltimore, community concerns about police brutality and an approaching mayoral election could make the search for the city's next police commissioner a tall task — but it could also make the job appealing to a candidate up to the challenge, law enforcement professionals and analysts say.

"It will be a daunting task," said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. The think tank assisted in the search that brought Anthony W. Batts to the city in 2012.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake fired Batts Wednesday amid growing calls for his resignation from members of the City Council and the community. The mayor appointed Deputy Commissioner Kevin Davis, who joined the department in January, to hold the position on an interim basis.

Davis, who headed the Anne Arundel County Police Department before coming to Baltimore, said Thursday that he "certainly" wants the job permanently.

A spokesman for the mayor said Thursday that she hasn't settled on her next steps for a replacement, but is focusing on making sure the police address the surge in violence in the city since the death of Freddie Gray in April.

Spokesman Kevin Harris said the mayor will spend time listening to what neighborhood leaders and city activists say they want in the next police commissioner.

Gray died after suffering a severe spinal cord injury in police custody. The event sparked days of protests and demonstrations against police brutality. On the day of his funeral, the city erupted in riots, arson and looting.

The Police Department has been under heavy scrutiny ever since. The agency is under multiple outside reviews, including a civil rights probe by the U.S. Justice Department. Homicides and shootings have spiked; officers say morale is at a low.

Further complicating the position's appeal to an outsider is next year's mayoral election, which is expected to be unusually competitive now that former Mayor Sheila Dixon has announced a challenge to onetime ally Rawlings-Blake. A lengthy search could leave a new commissioner with only a few months before a possible change of administration.

Wexler said the election "creates a real difficult dynamic" because it brings uncertainty for prospective candidates.

But some said the city's challenges could actually make the job more appealing to some candidates.

"Whoever gets it is going to inherit not only a challenge, but a chance to make a real difference in policing — not just in Baltimore, but as a model for the United States," said John DeCarlo, a former police chief in Connecticut who now teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

DeCarlo called Baltimore "the place where someone who is a serious practitioner would want to go."

Doug Ward, the director of the Johns Hopkins University's Division of Public Safety Leadership, agreed.

"There are a lot of good leaders who will take this as a challenge, and really take it on," Ward said. "A crisis … allows a leader more opportunity to make greater changes in an organization."

Wexler and Ward said Davis is well positioned to seize the job.

"He's perfectly capable of taking this department where it needs to go," Ward said. "It's very fortunate that [Rawlings-Blake] had Kevin Davis in the wings."

The next commissioner would be the third of Rawlings-Blake's tenure, after Frederick H. Bealefeld III and Batts. There have also been two interim commissioners: Anthony Barksdale, who filled in after Bealefeld retired in 2012, and now Davis.

Bealefeld, a homegrown veteran of the Police Department, was selected by Dixon in 2008 and was widely credited with significantly reducing gun violence.

Barksdale wanted to be his replacement, and council members and residents urged Rawlings-Blake to keep the appointment in-house. But the mayor's search committee recommended Batts, who had led police departments in Long Beach and Oakland, Calif., and was developing a national reputation as a reform-minded commissioner.

Davis, the son of a Prince George's County officer who got his start in that department, was hired to head the Anne Arundel force in 2013 by then-County Executive Laura Neuman. When Steven Schuh unseated Neuman last year, he let Davis go in favor of his choice for the job.

Harris said the mayor doesn't expect finding a new commissioner will be any more difficult than it would be in many jurisdictions.

"The issues are not unique to Baltimore," Harris said. "The challenges exist in every major city."

"You still have committed law enforcement showing up every day with the job," Harris said. "We're confident we'll be able to find what we need. But the important thing to stress is, that this is bigger than one person."

Harris said the mayor wants a commissioner who has "an effective and efficient crime strategy," who works well with the community and isn't afraid to hold officers accountable when they act unlawfully.

"There are a lot of reform-minded prospects," Harris said. "There are a lot of them right here in the city."

Harris said Rawlings-Blake took a similar approach when she was looking for Bealefeld's replacement. At the time, she said the community wanted — as she did— "a reform commissioner."

"We heard from the community, we listened to the community," Harris said.

jfenton@baltsun.com

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