Friday, July 20, 2007

BALTIMORE — Faced with a rising murder rate and a hotly contested primary, Mayor Sheila Dixon announced yesterday that she was replacing the head of the city’s police department.

The interim mayor made a point of noting during the press conference that “I don’t do things for form and fashion, I don’t do things because it’s politically correct,” but left without responding further to questions about the timing of the resignation.

Deputy Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld III will run the 3,000-member department on an interim basis, although a replacement could be named before the September Democratic primary, said Dixon spokesman Anthony McCarthy.

Mrs. Dixon, who took office when the former mayor, Martin O’Malley, was elected governor, faces a host of challengers in the primary.

The mayor’s spokesman said more changes in the police command staff are coming and “probably will be announced over the weekend or Monday.”

Mrs. Dixon and Mr. McCarthy repeatedly returned to two areas in discussing the decision to ask Commissioner Leonard Hamm to resign — moving the department toward a community-oriented policing strategy and away from her predecessor’s zero-tolerance approach, and ending management of the department by the mayor’s office.

Paul Blair, president of the Baltimore City Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 3, said after hearing of the resignation that police morale had been suffering because of low pay and because “City Hall has been running the police department for a long while.”

Mr. McCarthy said that was changing.

While the mayor has a “strategy on how to make the city safe, she needs the experts to implement the strategy and carry that strategy forward,” Mr. McCarthy said.

Mrs. Dixon said she “made it very clear to the police department that they were to run the police department and that they were the experts and I expect them to run the Baltimore City Police Department.”

Commissioner Hamm was the fourth police chief in as many years when he took the job in March 2005, leading a department that had faced community criticism because of Mr. O’Malley’s zero-tolerance strategy. Critics complained police were making nuisance arrests in an effort to lower the murder rate for political gain.

A Baltimore native who rose through the ranks, Commissioner Hamm joined the department in 1974 and eventually became the first black district commander.

Commissioner Bealefeld takes the job facing a rising murder rate. There have been 176 murders in Baltimore so far this year, putting the city on pace to top 300 murders for the first time in seven years.

Commissioner Bealefeld said yesterday that he believes in, and is dedicated to, the mayor’s community-oriented crime-fighting strategy.

The 26-year veteran said he would work tirelessly to build strong partnerships in local, state and federal government, “and most importantly, most importantly, we have to work very hard to strengthen our relationships in the community we serve.”

Mrs. Dixon said the police commissioner’s job is a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week job that takes “priority over family, friends and everything else.”

Mr. McCarthy said there was “a perception and a reality about the energy level at the top of the police department and the energy level committed to communicating the policy.”

“At the end of the day, I have to tell you it was about leadership,” Mr. McCarthy said.

“The mayor needed a strong energetic leader to implement a public safety strategy that when she is in the community, she hears is working.”

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