We have no doubt that a severance clause is standard for positions like that of the Baltimore police commissioner. It is crucially important to be able to recruit top talent to such a job, but it is also a position that doesn't offer much security, subject as it can be to the winds of politics. Under ordinary circumstances, we wouldn't bat an eye at Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's proposal to provide a $150,000 severance clause to Kevin Davis, the interim commissioner she has nominated to hold the position on a permanent basis. But the circumstances are far from ordinary.
Mr. Davis has been serving as interim chief since Ms. Rawlings-Blake fired former commissioner Anthony Batts amid this summer's surge in violent crime. Mr. Batts had clearly lost the confidence of the rank and file and of the public. So far, Mr. Davis has the support of the officers and appears at least to be making inroads into the community. He is certainly well qualified, having come up through the ranks in the Prince George's County police force, where he helped the department carry out reforms stemming from a U.S. Justice Department civil rights investigation of the agency, and having served as Anne Arundel police chief. And he is saying the right things in terms of increasing officers' sensitivity to community concerns.
There is no reason at this point to oppose his permanent appointment, but neither is it certain that he is the answer to all that ails the city's crime fight. Mr. Davis took over the department in July, a month when the city saw 45 homicides, making it the deadliest in Baltimore's modern history. The violence here has abated somewhat since then, but it remains at a level that we would previously have considered shocking. There were 34 homicides in August, 27 in September and 15 in the first two weeks of October. At the end of July, Baltimore was on pace for about 325 killings this year. Now we're on pace for about 336. It's far too early to judge Mr. Davis' crime fighting strategies a failure, of course, but we don't yet have much evidence of their success, either.
Mayor Rawlings-Blake said last month that she wanted to give Mr. Davis a long-term contract so he could "focus on moving the city forward." Fair enough. But she also announced last month that she would not seek re-election, meaning that his proposed contract, which would run until mid-2020, would outlast her tenure by nearly four years.
The track record on Baltimore police commissioners making it that long into a new mayor's term is not good. The last one who did was Donald D. Pomerleau, who got the job back when Maryland's governor had the power to appoint the city's top cop. He survived through all of Thomas J. D'Alesandro III's administration and much of William Donald Schaefer's. Some of his successors left of their own volition, but many didn't. Martin O'Malley's first commissioner was forced out in 57 days, his second left after two years for a job heading the state police (a post he then left for federal prison), and his third was fired after less than two years. Former Mayor Sheila Dixon fired the police commissioner she inherited from Mr. O'Malley within a matter of months. (It's worth noting that Mr. Davis himself was fired as Anne Arundel chief when a new county executive took over.)
Add on top of that the prospect that the mayor's race will likely focus heavily on questions of effective, community-oriented policing, and it is hard to imagine that Ms. Rawlings-Blake's replacement won't want his or her own person in the job. That makes it altogether possible that Mr. Davis will hold the post for a bit over a year and walk away with an extra $150,000 in the bargain.
City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young initially suggested the sensible idea of giving Mr. Davis a contract that only runs through the end of Ms. Rawlings-Blake's term, but the city solicitor's office has advised that an obscure provision of state law precludes it. There is, however, no requirement that the chief's contract include a severance payout. Would Mr. Davis really have refused to take the job without it? We find that hard to believe.
In the grand scheme of things, $150,000 isn't that big a deal. It's certainly not worth the City Council rejecting his contract over, but it rankles nonetheless. Doing what it takes to secure Mr. Davis in the commissioner's job solves a problem for Ms. Rawlings-Blake with the cost — however minor — to be borne by someone else. We hope that's not a preview of things to come for the rest of her term.