Baltimore is no stranger to short-term police commissioners, but in a history that dates back a century and a half, we have never before had four of them in a single calendar year. But that’s where we’ll be once the latest commissioner is named likely later this month, now that we know Interim Commissioner Gary Tuggle isn’t getting the job: He has withdrawn his name from consideration to hold the post permanently. And it’s not just the turnover at the top — Kevin Davis, fired amid a crime surge; Darryl De Sousa, forced out after a federal indictment on tax charges; Mr. Tuggle, apparently unwanted by city leaders — that’s a sign of concern. Recent reports of confrontations among other high-ranking commanders in the department, including a chair thrown against a wall during a meeting and an incident outside the police union lodge, paint a picture of a department in turmoil. If you don’t believe us, ask T.J. Smith, the department’s spokesman for the last three years who resigned today because of the mudslinging and dysfunction in the department. We need strong leadership and a fresh start, and there is at least reason to hope that an outsider to the department can bring that.
We don’t know for certain that Mayor Catherine Pugh intends to hire someone from the outside; remarkably little has leaked about the people who are in contention for the job, despite the fact that her administration says it remains on track to name her selection by the end of the month. At least one BPD alumna, Maj. Sabrina Tapp-Harper, who spent 26 years in the department before joining the sheriff’s office in 2014, has expressed interest. But the fact that Mr. Tuggle had not even been interviewed for the job suggests that the administration is looking for a fresh start.
Bringing in outsiders hasn’t always worked out well. Ed Norris, recruited by former Mayor Martin O’Malley from New York, made a splash here with an aggressive style of policing — but also went to jail after misusing funds. Kevin Clark, another New Yorker, was fired after an alleged domestic violence incident, and his wrongful termination suit lingered for years. Anthony Batts, a California transplant, was fired in the wake of the Freddie Gray unrest and subsequent spike in violence. Our most successful recent commissioner, Frederick Bealefeld, was home-grown. But there is reason to think hiring an outsider might be the right call this time.
The challenge facing the Baltimore Police Department cannot be understated. It is under simultaneous pressure to bring down a violent crime rate that is among the worst in the country while under federal orders to reform patterns and practices that routinely violated the civil rights of city residents and in turn drove a wedge between the department and community. The department’s next leader will have to navigate fractious city politics and internal politics while managing a force that is hundreds of officers (at least) short of what it was little more than a decade ago. Realistically, that’s more than we can expect any one person to bring to this job. We need more than even a superstar commissioner can offer. Rather, we need an all-star team of commanders who can steep the organization in a new culture that both utilizes the best practices in fighting crime and enlists the community as a partner. Re-shuffling the department’s existing leaders or bringing back veterans of the department, as has been happening since Mr. Davis’ departure, was clearly not working. We need fresh ideas and fresh skills, and we’re more likely to get that if we hire an outsider as commissioner and support him or her in bringing in a new team of leaders.
Of course, there are risks to going outside. We do need someone who understands the history of the department and who earns the trust of the community. It will be much easier for the next commissioner to accomplish that if the community feels like it has been part of the process. Mayor Pugh initially said she would convene a seven-member panel to vet candidates and that the selection would be accompanied by a listening tour, but we echo concerns from advocates that the process has not so far proved to be as open and transparent as it could be. We appreciate that a certain degree of confidentiality is necessary in the early stages of the process, since potential applicants may not want to jeopardize their current jobs. But we believe there is tremendous value for all involved if the public gets a chance to meet the finalists before the mayor makes her selection. That hasn’t typically occurred in Baltimore, but it is routine in many other cities — it happened in Denver, Seattle, Dallas and Milwaukee within the last year. Mr. Tuggle is absolutely right that we need someone who can commit to serving as commissioner for at least five years (and who we can commit to keeping for that long). That will be much more likely if the community feels like it has a stake in the selection — and if the next chief is able to see, first-hand, what he or she is getting into.