Baltimore deserves transparency about its police leader; this is what happens when we don't get it

The confusion today after the mayor of Ft. Worth told a reporter that her police chief, Joel Fitzgerald, would be Mayor Catherine Pugh’s pick for Baltimore’s next top cop, and then Mayor Pugh said she still hadn’t made up her mind, is emblematic of what happens when a process this important is conducted without anything remotely resembling the level of transparency that Baltimore needs and its people deserve.

We cannot begin to emphasize enough how crucial is is that our next commissioner be exemplary — a person who can simultaneously change the culture of a dysfunctional and dispirited department with a history of unconstitutional practices and drive down a crime epidemic that makes this the deadliest big city in America. But we also cannot emphasize enough how important it is that he or she have the trust and support of the community. Without it, we can’t achieve either reform or a sustained reduction in crime, and the mayor’s decision to shroud the process in secrecy will make it much more difficult for the next commissioner to earn it.

Mr. Fitzgerald has apparently been under serious consideration for the job, and if he winds up being the mayor’s pick, he comes with some baggage — reports of bad morale in Ft. Worth, police brutality complaints from his time as chief in Allentown, four jobs in five years — all of which is magnified by the confusion about whether he had or hadn’t been offered the post.

It appears that the Pugh administration isn’t directly to blame for the sequence of events that led to Ft. Worth Mayor Betsy’ Price’s premature (if not outright incorrect) confirmation of Mr. Fitzgerald's appointment. But we can be fairly certain that it would not have happened this way if the process had been as open and transparent as Mayor Pugh initially suggested it would be — or certainly as open as it is in other cities. There has been no listening tour, no advisory panel — at least not one that has been officially named or is subject to open meetings or public information laws. And unlike the routine practice of other big cities — including Ft. Worth and a number of others for which Mr. Fitzgerald has applied for the top job — Mayor Pugh does not intend to name her finalists or give the public the opportunity to consider them and their qualifications before she makes her pick. Instead, we are told to expect a fait accompli by the end of the month.

Here's what we know about the search for the next Baltimore police commissioner »

But whoever she picks, she doesn’t have the final say. The City Council does. Mayor Pugh hasn’t kept its members abreast of the selection process, but they will have the opportunity to hold hearings, conduct community outreach and investigate the background of whoever Mayor Pugh nominates before deciding whether to confirm him or her. They need to take that task more seriously than they ever have before, and they appear prepared to do so. A spokesman for City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young says the council stands prepared to take a delegation including community members to whatever city the nominee is from to learn as much as possible about him or her.

That’s good. They need to approach this process with a completely open mind — by which we mean they should go into it with neither automatic deference nor animus toward the mayor’s selection. This is not a case in which we should simply assume that she should have the latitude to pick her own team. The council needs to decide the matter on its merits not as a broader proxy for whether they do or don’t support the mayor, and certainly based on no ambition other than that for the city to thrive. The Darryl De Sousa debacle, in which the long-time Baltimore cop with good personal relationships on the council was quickly confirmed only to be forced out a few months later after an indictment on tax charges, should serve as a glaring reminder that we can take nothing for granted.

Whoever gets this job stands to be Baltimore’s fourth police commissioner in a calendar year. It is no exaggeration to say that the turmoil and infighting in the department is costing lives on the streets. We need to do whatever it takes to get this right.

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