Rodricks: Baltimore police commissioner De Sousa stumbles, but he's on right path

Can we just say this at the top and get it over with? The acting police commissioner of Baltimore is off to a rocky start. He might be eager to enact reforms and make big changes in a department rattled by scandal, but Darryl De Sousa has stumbled out of the gate.

And too bad. It did not have to be this way.


Consider events of Thursday and Friday. It appears De Sousa was set to take at least two questionable actions that he either reversed or put on hold once they were revealed by the news media.

On Thursday evening, The Baltimore Sun reported that the department was about to transfer Sgt. Alicia White, one of the officers charged in the Freddie Gray case, to the section responsible for investigating allegations of police misconduct.


By Friday morning, we were being told that White would not be going to Internal Affairs after all and that a department-wide personnel order announcing her transfer, and that of other officers, went out in De Sousa’s name without authorization.

OK. I suppose that’s possible. Managers make mistakes, especially after an administrative change. (De Sousa has been acting commissioner less than a month.)

But it’s also possible that someone at headquarters did not think this through. Someone should have considered the potential for bad public reaction to White’s moving into the section that investigates police misconduct. It looks as though it took a splash in the press to alert De Sousa that maybe White did not belong in Internal Affairs.

(I must add this: The charges against White in connection with Freddie Gray’s death were dropped. Her defense attorney, Ivan Bates, thinks she never should have been charged, and he’s now campaigning to unseat Marilyn Mosby, the Baltimore state’s attorney who brought the charges against White and five other officers. As most of the world knows, Mosby’s office was unable to get a single conviction; White never even went to trial. The fact that she was implicated should not be held against her forever. But, for now, there’s probably another way for the sergeant to serve the citizens of Baltimore.)

Then there was this: On Thursday, The Sun published a story in which De Sousa made some highly anticipated announcements about command changes, among them the recruitment from retirement of his mentor, Tom Cassella, who was a major when he left the department a decade ago.

My first reaction: Why not? Sounds promising. Sometimes good police commanders leave prematurely for personal reasons; they might have been forced into early retirement by a particular commissioner or deputy or mayor. We’ve lost some solid officers that way. So, bringing back someone De Sousa respected could be a good thing. That Cassella had retired in 2007 makes him, by now, more of an outsider than an insider, and outsiders are what a department under a Justice Department consent decree needs.

On Thursday night, De Sousa addressed the 2017 graduating class of the Police Academy, and he hit all the right notes. He challenged the 46 new officers to connect with the communities they serve, to mentor the young people they encounter and make them feel safe. He said he was determined to reform the department, and that the restructuring of his command staff “will drive this police department in the right direction.” All good.

But what happens? Local TV station FOX 45 reports that an internal memo raised concerns about Cassella’s time in the department. It was dated Jan. 26 and addressed to De Sousa from the Office of Professional Responsibility. The memo described old complaints against Cassella, including one that accused him of creating a hostile work environment.


So, by Friday morning, De Sousa’s appointment of Cassella to deputy commissioner was on hold. Again, it looked as though the acting commissioner was reacting to a news report — and not to the thing itself, the Jan. 26 memo.

Then, Saturday night, another development — De Sousa released a statement saying the information in the memo was not accurate: “There are no sustained complaints against [Cassella] involving race, religion, sex, or any other type of discrimination. What occurred to him was completely unfortunate and unfair. We are investigating how incorrect information was provided to me and how that information was publicly disseminated.”

Of course, it would have been wise to have cleared all this up before De Sousa announced his new deputy.

You can attribute some of this to De Sousa’s eagerness to show his commitment to changing the department from within. Even as the jury considers the appalling testimony that came out of the Gun Trace Task Force trial, he is trying to bend the storyline of the Baltimore Police Department toward reform. Good.

But, as my late friend and colleague, Nick Yengich, used to say, “Make sure you line up your duckies.” And that’s especially good advice when everyone’s watching your every move.