Amid scandal, leaders hope next Baltimore Police commissioner can resolve 'infighting' and 'political turmoil'

Police reform advocates hope Baltimore’s next police commissioner can resolve the “infighting” and “political turmoil” cited by recent high-level departures who described significant dysfunction within the department.

The recent departures are “recognized as ‘good apples’ and they are leaving and saying they don’t want to be a part of this. That’s telling you that we haven’t progressed,” said Ray Kelly, a longtime community advocate who has been lobbying for policing reforms in the city.

“We don’t have a department willing to move forward and political infrastructure to move forward,” he said.

In the past two weeks, Interim Commissioner Gary Tuggle abruptly announced he was withdrawing his name to be the next permanent commissioner after expressing interest in the job for months, while police spokesman T.J. Smith and Col. Perry Standfield quit, citing the widespread problems within the department.

Jo Anne Stanton with Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, the influential coalition of city churches and community groups known as BUILD, said the department needs some stability to move forward on reforming.

The Baltimore Police Department is undertaking wide-ranging reforms required under a a consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department after a federal investigation found widespread unconstitutional and discriminatory police practices.

“The first step is getting a commissioner who is committed to Baltimore,” Stanton said.

The Baltimore Police Department has had four top leaders since 2015. In that time, the department has struggled with unprecedented violence while endeavoring to regain the community’s trust following the unrest after the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered in police custody and the federal racketeering case against members of the rogue, now disgraced Gun Trace Task Force.

Despite the promise of a fresh beginning under a new police commissioner, advocates for policing reform say they’re troubled by the opaque selection process for the city’s next top cop.

Mayor Catherine E. Pugh has said she will name the name new police commissioner by the end of the month, but has said very little else about the search. City Solicitor Andre M. Davis, who is aiding the mayor in the search, has said there has been interest from across the country, with more than 50 candidates applying for the job, which many have called the most difficult law enforcement job in the country.

Without public vetting, police reform advocates ask how residents can determine whether the next leader is dedicated long-term and can bring about widespread cultural changes to the beleaguered department.

“No one has insight on this whole process,” said Kelly, who also serves on a panel that made extensive recommendations for community oversight of police. “We hope [the next commissioner is] being told they have to stabilize and change this department to a more community informed policing model.”

While some critics have said the department needs to be completely rebuilt, many hope the next police commissioner will be the catalyst who can provide much needed stability and cultural change.

Any new commissioner will need to reform a policing culture that seems to be in dysfunctional, at least according to those who departed recently.

“There’s no organization in the department. There’s a lot of infighting that the public doesn’t know about, doesn’t see. I can’t be a part of it. I’m not that type of person,” said Standfield, who left the department on Oct. 4. He left after slamming a chair into a wall during a heated meeting with Tuggle’s chief of staff.

Then on Wednesday, Smith, who has been the department’s public face since 2015, serving three commissioners, announced his departure in a five-page letter. In the letter, Smith said the driving force behind his decision was “mudslinging” within the department and “political turmoil” all around it.

Tuggle did not provide specifics as to why he withdrew his name last week, but said he could not lead the department over the course of the years that it will take to make meaningful improvements.

Necessary reforms would take “an extended commitment — I’m going to say five to seven years — based on everything that needs to be done, including re-establishing the public's trust in the department. And I just don’t have that five to seven years to give,” he told reporters Tuesday outside a quarterly hearing discussing consent decree reform progress.

U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar, who is overseeing the consent decree, has repeatedly expressed the need for a permanent police commissioner who is committed to reform.

The department needs a leader “who is bold, strong and capable of inspiring the community but also conforms with this reform initiative,” Bredar said at the hearing last week.

Without that crucial piece, Staton said, “then we find ourselves in the same positions.”

Amid the dizzying number of embarrassments in recent weeks, such as an officer caught drunk on the job and two upper-level police officials getting into a confrontation outside the police union, the city has undergone a substantial spike in violence.

Nearly 40 people were killed in the month of September, including 17 in a single week.

“People had already lost faith in the police department,” Stanton said.

But with the promise of a fresh start under a new leader and reforms mandated by the consent decree, she said people are willing to embrace a new department.

“Many of the people we’ve talked to said they’re willing to work with the department, they just don’t feel there is any stability, so the trust isn’t there,” she said. “The things that have happened over the last several years, there’s a sense of dysfunction.”

Lester Davis, a spokesman for City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, said the announcement of the next commissioner, who will likely bring his or her own team to help run the department, will hopefully bring about more stability.

“I think the person coming in is going to make sure they have structure to support the goals they want,” said Davis, noting that recent past commissioners also brought deputies to help them serve.

The council, he said, is making every effort to attempt to monitor the department. The council went from quarterly to monthly hearings to hear from police officials about spending and other issues, he said.

“I don’t think you do that when you have an abundance of faith. The council has stepped up the oversight that it can,” Davis said. “A lot of the stuff came up because the council is probing.”

At the latest hearing last week, top commanders briefed the council on various internal affairs matters — investigations that are often obscured from public scrutiny. Among the disclosures was that 20 officers were facing criminal charges as of last week and that seven officers are under internal investigation connected to the Gun Trace Task Force.

City Councilmen Ryan Dorsey and Brandon M. Scott, also chairman of the council’s public safety committee, have expressed frustration by a quirk in the law which makes the city’s police department a state agency, meaning the council has little ability to intervene.

“I believe wholly that not only should the department have a civilian commissioner, [but] that authority over the department, like every other jurisdiction should be fully vested in the city, the local jurisdiction,” Dorsey said. “It’s pretty clear that the state isn’t going to make sure the department is properly managed.”

While he’s often viewed as the “enemy of the police” because of his criticism, Dorsey said he regularly hears from officers in the department who express similar concerns.

“They’re constantly telling me you don’t know the half of it, it’s so much much worse,” Dorsey said.

Among the most obvious reforms he sees as necessary is hiring more civilians to work in the department. Not only would hiring more civilians allow more officers to hit the streets, helping fill the high level of vacancies in the patrol ranks, but it would help change the culture of the department, he said.

But the key to real reform, he said, is a new commissioner willing to implement change.

“We really need somebody who approaches the department with no reverence with the prevailing culture whatsoever,” Dorsey said.

jkanderson@baltsun.com

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