The Sun reported this week on a job announcement the city of Baltimore posted for a new police commissioner. The four-page document doesn’t sugar coat the situation here — it acknowledges Baltimore’s high crime rate and the longstanding strain between the police department and the community — but it doesn’t tell applicants quite everything they need to know. Here’s what it should have said.
The City of Baltimore seeks applicants for what may be the toughest job right now in American law enforcement — Baltimore police commissioner. (Rod Rosenstein, you’ve got a cakewalk compared to this.) The position offers the unparalleled challenge of leading an under-staffed, ill equipped and in many respects demoralized police agency while simultaneously implementing court-ordered reforms under a federal consent decree and grappling with crime that ranks Baltimore among the most violent in the nation.
Baltimore is the nation’s 30th largest city, though its population of 611,000 reflects years of decline related to crime, poor schools and stunted economic opportunities, much of it caused by a shameful history of racial segregation, redlining and blockbusting. It is located 40 miles northeast of Washington, D.C., a city whose current prosperity and growth provides critics with an easy contrast but optimists with hope that our problems can be turned around.
Baltimore’s recovery from the collapse of its industrial economy has been uneven. Parts of the city have prospered from a new economy centered around services — notably, health care, education and technology — while others have decayed amid a lack of access to family-supporting jobs. The most vibrant industry in many neighborhoods is the illegal drug trade.
The police department and the commissioner face relentless and often contradictory pressures from the city’s political, business and professional classes, as well as the media. The community and the city’s leaders ostensibly agree on the need to reform the department, and the next commissioner can count on support for that effort — unless violent crime spikes again, in which case all bets are off.
Baltimore is an independent city, surrounded by two separate and independent suburban jurisdictions, Baltimore County and Anne Arundel County, both of which were the beneficiaries of white flight and, later, black flight from the city. Support for Baltimore from their elected leaders is not a given. Baltimore’s mayor, Catherine Pugh, sees the city’s crime through the lens of its entrenched social problems, and she does not consider the police department as the sole means of fostering increased public safety. But when she stands for re-election in two years, she will be judged on the crime rate. She is on her third police commissioner, and she can’t afford for the next one to screw up. If you haven’t filed your tax returns, or if you’ve done anything else that could embarrass her, you can stop reading now.
The Baltimore Police Department is one of the largest in the country, yet it is hundreds of officers short of what is necessary to accommodate a patrol schedule foolishly negotiated into the union contract by a previous mayor and commissioner. The department burns officers out through mandatory overtime, and many leave for easier and better paying jobs in the suburbs after getting a few years of experience here. Mayor Pugh is committed to filling vacant positions and funding new ones, but recruitment has been a struggle, particularly since the events following the death of Freddie Gray, which are alternately referred to as “riots,” “unrest” or “the uprising,” depending on whom you’re speaking to.
The police commissioner is appointed by the mayor, subject to City Council confirmation, and can be fired by the mayor. The over-under on tenure is about two and a half years.
The ideal candidate for police commissioner is someone who is exceptional at fighting crime, exceptional at reforming a police department that has long relied on unconstitutional practices, exceptional at simplifying a byzantine bureaucracy with poor coordination and conflicting lines of authority and exceptional at building trust in a community where many believe the police are no better than the criminals.
In short, if you believe you are the single most capable and innovative law enforcement leader in the country, here’s your chance to prove it. If not, don’t bother to apply. We can’t accept anything less than the best.
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