De Sousa had to resign; Pugh has to do better

Darryl De Sousa’s resignation as Baltimore police commissioner was an unfortunate necessity. His admission that he failed for three years in a row to file his federal taxes — an offense for which he faces three misdemeanor charges — diminished his moral authority as the city’s top law enforcement official, called into question his ability to manage a 3,000-employee department and sapped public confidence in Mayor Catherine Pugh’s administration. Even if the additional federal subpoenas related to his pay, expenses and taxes don’t lead to additional revelations about Mr. De Sousa’s finances, even if he is somehow able to clear up his legal problems, Mayor Pugh could not have allowed him to come back from his suspension. Had he not resigned, she would have had to fire him — not because he made her look bad (though he did) but because she could not have maintained the discipline she needs from her staff to run the city effectively if she tolerated a breach of trust so egregious as Mr. De Sousa’s failure to warn her of such a damaging lapse in his past.

We say Mr. De Sousa’s resignation is unfortunate not because he had proved himself as police commissioner — he had not been in the post long enough to make any judgments about that, though his rapport with the community and rank-and-file officers alike was encouraging. Rather, the disruption his rise and sudden departure will cause is the last thing the Baltimore Police Department needs at a time when rates of violent crime have been creeping back upward and the pressures to implement the terms of the city’s consent decree with the federal Department of Justice are intensifying.

Where do we go from here? Mayor Pugh says she will conduct a national search for the next police commissioner, which, given the challenges Baltimore faces, might have been the right place to start five months ago when she grew “impatient” with the progress of crime fighting under Mr. De Sousa’s predecessor, Kevin Davis. For all the advantages Mr. De Sousa had in terms of his familiarity with Baltimore and the police department where he spent his entire 30-year career, he did not represent much of a change in terms of crime fighting strategy or management philosophy. And some warning signs surfaced early on about how prepared he was for the post. He had his own vetting problem with his choice for a top deputy. He called attention to division within the ranks with a bungled effort to cut off a commander’s access to departmental email and phones to prevent leaks. He created controversy by getting on stage during a hip hop show and apologizing for 200 years of policing. And his assertion that his failure to file his taxes for three years because he did not “sufficiently prioritize [his] personal affairs” was laughably inadequate.

Except for the last one, those missteps would have been surmountable. But the pressures on the Baltimore Police Department right now are such that we can ill afford someone who is growing into the job of commissioner. We need someone with demonstrated excellence both in fighting crime and in managing a department through cultural change. There aren’t many people out there who can do both, and Mayor Pugh needs to invest the time it takes to find one and bring him or her to Baltimore.

And for heaven’s sake, Ms. Pugh needs to follow through on her administration’s promise to strengthen vetting procedures for the people she appoints to top jobs. This is the second time in six months that Ms. Pugh has hired someone only later to discover shortcomings in their past that should have eliminated them from consideration in the first place. Public confidence in City Hall is badly frayed as it is. She can’t afford a third mistake.

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