Scrutiny for a Baltimore police chief nominee is nothing new

City Councilman Zeke Cohen says Joel Fitzgerald, the nominee to be Baltimore’s next police commissioner, observed with some frustration this week that the confirmation process here is more intense than he has experienced before. We can’t question his expertise on that point — after all, he’s landed three chief jobs since 2009 and has been publicly named as a candidate or finalist for several others. But we can say that the scrutiny he has received is nothing new for Baltimore, and neither are the demands by the City Council and public for more information about his background.

2000 — Edward Norris

In 2000, after then-Mayor Martin O’Malley’s first police commissioner resigned less than two months into the job, the nomination of Edward Norris unleashed a torrent of controversy, with many questioning (presciently, as it would turn out) whether the New York tactics he promised to bring would breed civil rights violations and drive a wedge between the department and the community. The City Council’s executive nominations committee took no position on his appointment, and a councilwoman demanded to see his internal affairs files from New York.

Mr. Norris would go on to be confirmed unanimously, but only after he spent weeks attending nearly a dozen public forums across the city; he posted a 120-page crime fighting plan on the internet; Mr. O’Malley sent thousands of letters to voters asking them to contact their councilmen to voice their support; the council conducted extensive hearings; and Mr. O’Malley greased the way with a promise of housing funds in one district.

2003 — Kevin Clark

Three years later, after Mr. Norris was indicted on charges he abused a police charity fund and resigned, Mr. O’Malley tapped another New Yorker, Kevin Clark, to lead the department. He said at the time that he had interviewed two other people for the job — including one internal candidate, whom he named. Mr. Clark’s confirmation came easier than Mr. Norris’, though he did attend at least two public forums before confirmation and answered detailed questions about his plans for fighting Baltimore crime. And the council would later rue its failure to exact more scrutiny; Mr. Clark would soon be ousted after police were called to his apartment in an alleged domestic violence incident. Though he was never charged, Mr. O’Malley demanded his resignation. When council members learned that evidence of previous domestic violence allegations was in his personnel files from New York, council members vowed to do better the next time.

2004 — Leonard Hamm

That next time was the 2004 nomination of Leonard Hamm, a popular home-grown cop. Though he was well known to the council, then-President Sheila Dixon issued a written list of information she demanded before supporting his confirmation. After The Sun reported some questionable details of Mr. Hamm’s 1997 bankruptcy filing, Mr. O’Malley conducted a three-month background investigation into him before formally submitting his name to the council for confirmation as permanent chief. Subsequent reporting made public the details of his personal finances, including the size of his mortgage and spending on home improvements. He was eventually confirmed unanimously after enlisting the likes of former U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, Rep. Elijah Cummings, attorney Billy Murphy and former police commissioner Bishop Robinson to testify on his behalf.

2007 — Frederick Bealefeld

When then-Mayor Sheila Dixon forced out Mr. Hamm amid an election-year crime spike in 2007, she made his deputy, Frederick Bealefeld, acting chief and promised a national search for a permanent commissioner. She faced criticism about the scope and inclusiveness of the process, which came down to two well publicized finalists: Mr. Bealefeld and former Washington, D.C., police chief Charles Ramsey. Before choosing between the two, Ms. Dixon reportedly reached out to others, including then-State’s Attorney Patricia Jessamy, for advice. She later said she had interviewed eight candidates and had spoken with the current or former mayors of Washington and Chicago about the decision. Mr. Bealefeld won easy confirmation, but he had by that point the advantage of four months on the job when the pace of homicides, non-fatal shootings and arrests had all appreciably dropped.

2012 — Anthony Batts

After Mr. Bealefeld announced his plans to retire on Aug. 1, 2012, then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake publicly named a search panel, headed by Kenneth Thompson, the attorney who is now in charge of the monitoring team for the Baltimore Police Department’s federal consent decree, which also includes Mr. Ramsey. She did, however, face criticism for not including representatives of Baltimore’s high-crime communities on the panel and for not keeping the City Council informed about the process. Her selection, former Oakland police chief Anthony Batts, disappointed many council members, who had been publicly backing an internal candidate. Within a day of his naming, Mr. Batts was on a charm offensive in Charm City, meeting with council members, thought leaders and community members, appearing on the radio, walking the streets and attending neighborhood meetings. He faced questions from council members and the public about a report from California that he had been involved in a domestic violence incident — he said it was untrue, and The Sun was unable to verify it. He was confirmed unanimously.

2015 — Kevin Davis

Ms. Rawlings-Blake fired Mr. Batts amid the post-Freddie Gray crime surge and tapped his top deputy, Kevin Davis, to lead the department on an interim basis. Months later, after she announced she would not seek re-election, she proposed giving Mr. Davis the job permanently. Council members had no problem with Mr. Davis, but they did object to the idea that he would get a contract that extended past the end of her term, particularly one that included a large severance package. At his hearing before the Executive Nominations Committee, a group of protesters engaged in a sit-in at City Hall that lasted into the next morning and ended with the arrest of 16 people.

2018 Darryl De Sousa

In recent memory, there has really been only one commissioner who sailed through the nomination and confirmation process with no difficulty whatsoever, and unfortunately for Mr. Fitzgerald, it’s the one who’s probably most on council members’ minds at the moment: Darryl De Sousa. A veteran Baltimore cop, he had immediate support from members of the council, including frequent Pugh critics like Councilman Brandon Scott. He faced some questions about a pair of shootings he had been involved in years before, but he was confirmed easily, 14-1. Then, mere weeks later, he was indicted by federal prosecutors on charges of failing to file his tax returns for three years.

So, yes, Mr. Fitzgerald, we tend to employ an intense process to select and confirm our police commissioners, and when we don’t, it tends to end badly. Heck, it sometimes ends badly even when we do. But we can assure you, the scrutiny you face now is nothing compared to what you’ll face should you be confirmed. That’s the reality of the toughest job in American policing. We certainly hope you’re up for it, but if not, we need to know that now.

Become a subscriber today to support editorial writing like this. Start getting full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks.

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
52°