BALTIMORE (CN)—Baltimore just installed its third police commissioner in as many years following problems with increased violence and a record-level homicide rate in 2017.
Last year, Baltimore saw 343 murders, up from 318 in 2016 – and only one short of 2015’s unprecedented 344.
Mayor Catherine Pugh fired Commissioner Kevin Davis and announced Darryl DeSousa as his replacement at a press conference Friday morning.
Pugh said the replacement would take effect immediately, and that she would ask the city council to make the appointment permanent.
“As I have made clear, reducing violence and restoring the confidence of our citizens in their police officers is my highest priority,” Pugh said in a statement. “The fact is, we are not achieving the pace of progress that our residents have every right to expect in the weeks since we ended what was nearly a record year for homicides in the city of Baltimore.”
Davis could not be reached for further comment.
“The priority as of this moment right now – it’s really simple. It’s a really simple priority, and that’s violent [sic] reduction. Second priority is violent reduction, and third priority is violent reduction — at accelerated pace. That’s the bottom line,” DeSousa said at the press conference.
The department has seen its share of problems in the last three years, beginning with the six officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray, who died while in custody after police shot him. Gray’s death led to violent protests throughout the city in April 2015. Three of the officers were acquitted after bench trials and charges against the three remaining officers were dropped prior to trials.
The Department is also currently operating under a consent decree issued by a federal judge after the Department of Justice investigated and found widespread civil rights abuses by the force.
During its investigation, the DOJ discovered that eight officers from the elite Gun Task Force – a plainclothes unit – were robbing drug dealers and planting evidence. Those officers faced federal racketeering charges in March 2017. Six have pleaded guilty to charges stemming from their involvement.
DeSousa referenced the convicted task force members at the press conference.
“The culture around here contributes to it, and should someone have known about it? Absolutely they should have known,” he said. “This is a dysfunctional police department. I’m telling you as a person who has seen what a healthy organization looks like. This is not one of them. But we’re making huge strides in getting there.”
Andrew Scott, policing practices and procedures expert and retired chief of police for Boca Raton, Florida, shared his insights on the department.
“In order for them to bring about change in the culture of the Baltimore City Police Department, there has to be support from the political arena, the top brass, and the public,” Scott said in an interview.
He added that changes to the culture of the department and the hopeful decline in violent crime in the city are not going to come easily.
“The mayor has to be willing to sustain certain pain-points before there can be change in the culture at the department … that is going to take political fortitude,” Scott said.
Scott reflected that DeSousa’s job may be more difficult as an insider with the department than if he had been brought in from outside.
“He probably has a more difficult task in changing the culture at the department because he was brought up through the ranks,” Scott said. “The problem is that he knows a lot of things and the people that work with him know a lot about him. It’s not impossible to change the culture in the department from within, but it can make it more difficult when the new commissioner was brought up through the ranks.”
Changes in the culture at the department have to come from three different areas, Scott said. The department has to be supported in the political arena, the officers have to be supported by the commanders and the public has to support the officers in the trenches doing the heavy lifting of policing the streets.
“DeSousa has to assure the rank and file that he’s not out for witch hunts, but they have to see certain changes in performance from the commanders,” Scott said. “He has to examine the upper echelons of the agency. He really has to know all the top brass and has to scrutinize their performance. The cultural change starts from the top.”
Scott believes changes in the department could reduce the violence plaguing the city.
“There is no city that cannot change its upward trends in crime rates,” he said. “There is no doubt that the crime issues in Baltimore can be resolved.”
“The beginning of the change will occur when the officers know they are supported,” Scott added. “If the officers are doing things improperly, they need to know they will be held accountable – and if they are doing them well they need to be recognized for doing it well … the commissioner and command need to support their officers for doing it the proper way.”