Police headquarters is quiet on President's Day, but Frederick H. Bealefeld III is, nevertheless, in his dress uniform, still on the job. He quips that there are no holidays for him anymore as he settles himself behind the desk in the commissioner's office, a Coke in one hand and a blackberry that seems to be constantly vibrating in the other. For this reporter, it took three attempts to get to this point in February, when Bealefeld could sit down and spend a few hours talking about how he's going to change the Baltimore police department, and about the public's perception of the office of commissioner.
The last meeting was canceled when he was called away to deal with a media maelstrom after an officer shot a man who had just murdered his wife. That's just one in a myriad of headlines that regularly beset the city and one more reason why the commissioner's chair has been a hot seat for many years.
The job of Baltimore's top cop is unforgiving. If the violent crime numbers go down, people think it's a fluke. If the numbers go up, the police have failed. The hours are endless and the pressure is constant. As of late, the office of police commissioner has also been under siege from political infighting, finger-pointing, and litigation. Bealefeld is the fourth Baltimore City Police commissioner in seven years. Yet he's optimistic that he can improve public safety in the city and Baltimoreans' opinion of the police where others have had—at best—marginal success.
"If I didn't believe I could do that, I need to find another job," he says.
For Fred Bealefeld, 45, the Baltimore City Police department has been part of his family for generations. His great grandfather, grandfather, and great uncle were all city police officers. His great uncle was killed in the line of duty. Growing up in Pasadena with his four sisters and one brother (now a homicide detective), Bealefeld says he had enormous respect for his grandfather, but not because he ever told tales of heroism or shootouts.
"He just seemed to me as a kid to be this great rock of a man and just epitomized strength when I didn't know the definitions of those things," he recalls. "He wasn't a hero. . . You know what he did? He walked foot. He was a foot man."
Despite the family ties to the police force, Bealefeld pictured himself going to college to get a degree in engineering or maybe joining the Marines. He was working for his father, an electrician, when he learned of the police department's cadet program, which would pay for his college education. The day he went for his interview, Bealefeld wore a sweatshirt to cover up a broken collarbone from a smash-up on the lacrosse field at junior college. He got into the program.
"I thought I'd do it for a while and maybe move on, but the rest is history," he says. "I started out in Central Records and never, ever looked back."
Since he joined the police department in 1981, he has worked his way up the ranks to be a supervisor of the homicide division, commander of the citywide narcotics section, chief of detectives, commander of the Southern District, and Deputy Commissioner for Operations. He became acting commissioner in July 2007 when Leonard Hamm vacated that seat. But his rise was due less to blind ambition than it was to hard work inspired by his father's mantra.
"There are going to be a few people in this place that can say 'Oh, that guy Bealefeld, I'm smarter than him, I made better cases, I can run faster or drive better.' There are people that can lay claim to that. There are few people that could say they've worked harder. And so I ascended."
Sheryl Goldstein, director of the Mayor's Office on Criminal Justice, agrees. "He is one of the most hardworking people you will ever meet," she says. "He is incredibly passionate and committed to what he does. He really loves the city and is committed to improving public safety in the city."
Despite all that hard work, Bealefeld never was one to eye the commissioner's post; his one aspiration was to become a captain, until recently the highest civil-servant position one could achieve. In fact, he balked at the top-cop opportunity when it was first presented to him.
"This job, it takes so much. It takes so much of your energy, it takes so much of your family, and not just your wife and kids, but everybody," he explains. "Family stop asking why you're not at parties, why you're not at birthdays or baptisms or weddings. . . They all have to sacrifice."
So when Mayor Sheila Dixon came to him with the prospect of becoming commissioner, he felt it was too much to ask of his wife Linda, to whom he's been married for 24 years, and their two teenage children. They, on the other hand, were incredulous that he'd pass it up. "My wife's view was, 'Are you an idiot?' We've gone through all this and now you have this opportunity and you're not going to take it?"
On October 4, 2007, Bealefeld officially became Baltimore City's new commissioner. Since then, Bealefeld rarely gets back to his South Baltimore home for dinner with his family (which recently moved from Bel Air), and has little time for diversions, which in his case include reading history books as well as golf, baseball, and hockey (he plays for the P.D. team when he can).
In the 27 years Bealefeld has been a police officer, there has, of course, always been the crime that is part and parcel of life in most big cities. What has changed is the scale of crime. In his time, heroin organizations have devolved from organized empires to a dangerous free market, while gangs have become more organized and more volatile. Easy access to guns has escalated violent offenses. Although all violent crime was down 5 percent citywide last year, Baltimore logged 282 homicides in 2007, up from 274 the previous year. Clearly, any commissioner has his work cut out for him. Although Bealefeld has a plan to tackle those issues, one of the first things he did was to look internally, at his own department.
"Morale is something very intangible but I knew it was broken and I knew these guys were broken," he says. As the scale of crime changed, so too did the public's perception of the men and women who were stewards of the public's safety. As drugs overran this and other American cities, people looked to the police for a response. When that response seemed inadequate or inappropriate, communities began to distrust the police.
"There was no easy solution, so I think society looked at the police as failures," says Bealefeld. "I think the police looked at themselves as failures, in the extreme, or frustrated in the reality. It created that kind of perfect storm for where we find ourselves today."
Bealefeld never shies away from a chance to use a sports analogy. He compares the Baltimore City Police Department to the New York Jets when they should be acting like the New England Patriots. "You had people walking around here with their heads down like they're a 2 and 14 team," he states.
Keeping with the sports metaphor, Bealefeld says he needed a game plan, some clear direction and education for the department and its officers. Rather than have his officers just move someone off a corner, he wanted to get measurable results. One way is to go after guns.
Baltimore City is the second jurisdiction in the country to pass a Gun Offender Registry into law. The registry requires an individual convicted of a gun offense to register their current address and to report to the Police Department every six months for three years following their conviction. The registry is based on the premise that gun offenders are likely to re-offend if a mechanism isn't in place to deter them. Forty-two percent of defendants charged with felony gun crimes have prior gun arrests, and 50 percent of suspects in homicides have prior gun charges.
"Everybody says, 'Oh, the registry is a gimmick,'" says Bealefeld. "You know who else has a gun offender registry? New York. You know how many murders they had last year? The fewest since 1968."
Whether what works in New York will work in Baltimore remains to be seen. Since the registry came online January 1, at least 114 people have been registered. That's 114 violent offenders the police can keep a special eye on.
"When bad guys with guns are released, they get guns again," says Bealefeld. "I want my cops to know who those people are, so when they pull up on a corner they're not just hitting the electric button and the window rolls down and they yell, "Get off the corner." I want them to get out of the car and engage, but now we're giving them an added tool to recognize who the bad guys are in the community."
The city is aggressively targeting gun crime with other programs, such as the Gun Trace Task Force, a highly collaborative (and therefore highly unusual) multi-jurisdictional partnership aimed at reducing interstate gun trafficking. Baltimore EXILE is a city and federal project aimed at the most violent offenders and the city's most violent neighborhoods to ensure that gun offenders serve hard time. At the same time, programs like Operation Safe Streets, a program of the Health Department in partnership with the police department, gets outreach workers into volatile neighborhoods between 6 p.m. and 2 a.m. to try to reduce violent crime before it happens. Based on a successful program in Chicago called Operation Cease Fire, Operation Safe Streets is currently working in four police posts.
If there's one thing a lot of these programs have in common, it's partnership.
"When I took over as mayor, we came up with a really defined plan to focus on the most violent offenders, as well as stressing community engagement and partnerships, and [Bealefeld's] taken every part of that and incorporated that into the overall plan and vision of the police department," says Dixon. "Sometimes people get into their roles and they only see what their responsibility is and not where other areas impact it. He works well with other agencies as well as other partners who have a role in all this."
Perhaps no partner in the fight against crime has had a relationship with the Baltimore City Police Department as publicly contentious as the City State's Attorney's Office. After years of political cat fighting between City Hall, the Office of the State's Attorney, and the P.D., a relative calm seems to have arrived. City State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy, a controversial figure in her own right, is practically giddy when she speaks of Bealefeld. The two first met when Bealefeld was in charge of the Southern District and they started a Safe Neighborhoods program in the Cherry Hill/Park Heights area.
"He's interested in more of a community-focused police department, which is something that was sorely missing," she says. "He's an individual who believes in a more strategic law-enforcement strategy, which is very good for the city."
Jessamy was thrilled when Bealefeld rolled back the Zero Tolerance policy that overloaded the courts and damaged the public's trust of the police. She also hopes this will be the end of the revolving door at the commissioner's office. "We have consistent change in policy rather than consistent criminal justice policy," she says of the high turnover in the commissioner's office in recent years. "That's not good. . . Never being able to see what the end result is of what you've attempted. That's been a real big problem."
According to Jessamy, the old adage that statistics lie and liars use statistics has rung true in Baltimore with catastrophic results, so she's pleased that Bealefeld is more about results than just numbers. She hopes the city is moving toward proactive crime fighting, rather than the reactionary stance it has had for many years. "I think we're on a very good path. He's getting police out of the cars and interacting more with the community, rebuilding trust within the community. All of those things are very much needed." She adds that for her part, "There's less finger-pointing and more working to solve problems."
Bealefeld is the kind of animated, no-holds-barred talker who gives public relations managers a headache. If he is passionate about something, you'll know it. If he is frustrated by something, you'll know that, too. He has the kind of down-home charisma that could motivate a small army to walk straight into the line of fire just because he told them to.
Goldstein, of the Office of Criminal Justice, recalls a day when they were in Annapolis talking about the city's desire to close loopholes in the gun laws. Bealefeld, a long-time supporter of legal requirements to report lost or stolen guns, was trying to drive home why the law was necessary. He gave the example that if your pet tiger got out, you'd report it because a tiger is a dangerous animal. And you should do the same for your gun.
"I think that's really his gift, to translate our complicated public safety issues into everyday things people can relate to," says Goldstein.
"He's hands on, he has good communication skills and it's not like he's just speaking from the headquarter tower and looking down," says Dixon. "The officers respect and appreciate him. It's the difference between telling people what to do and going out there and practicing it along with them, and I don't think that was the case with some prior commissioners."
Sgt. Dorsey McVicker has been on the Baltimore force for 28 years and known Bealefeld for all but two of those years. He describes Bealefeld as "intense, dedicated, hardworking," and also as a "decent man, a family guy." And he carries a lot of weight in the department, not only because he's been there so long, but because his background is operational more than administrative. He's a cop's cop, a true street guy.
"Everybody respects him because whatever he wants people to do on the street, he's already done it," says McVicker. "To be a leader, you need to lead by example and show them that'll you'll roll up your sleeves and get in the fight, too." Bealefeld will still respond to calls (as backup) and visits officers in the districts. His office also hosts district cops at headquarters to get their feedback in an "officer of the month" promotion.
If you want to really light a fire under the commissioner, get him talking about community engagement. When he talks about his officers, he has a clear message: We are all footmen. Like his grandfather before him, Bealefeld believes in old-fashioned, beat policing to win back the public trust and safety that has been lost.
"A real partnership can't come at the expense of declaring war on the community," he explains. "We can't be an army of occupation. We have to solve problems there. We have to help them. We are there to serve the community."
At the same time, he wants to see communities helping themselves, and returning to a time when people said hello to their neighbors, and knew who was part of the neighborhood and who was a stranger, rather than making risky snap judgments. And if communities could begin to arbitrate some of their own minor problems, asking a neighbor to turn down their loud music, for example, rather than calling the police, it would free up the police to go after the bigger fish.
"It's got to be less of a foundation built on handcuffs and jail cells than it is built on people really being involved in their communities and not endlessly calling 911 about every grievance or slight or problem," he explains. "They call about kids playing basketball in the alley. Yes, it's against the law but hell, help clean up a lot or take some community money and restore the basketball court down the street. Get out there. Play ball with the kids."
When Bealefeld was commander of the Southern District, he helped start a Citizens On Patrol program (C.O.P.) with local community leaders. C.O.P. mobilizes community members to get out and walk the streets as a group to deter hookers and drug dealers from loitering in the neighborhood. Jack Baker, an Otterbein resident and president of the Southern District Police and Community Relations Council, says Bealefeld won over their community with his hands-on approach to policing, his infectious enthusiasm, and his die-hard cop instincts.
Baker recalls how on one of their walks in Curtis Bay, Bealefeld, in full dress uniform, chased down a drug dealer and made an arrest.
"He's totally changed my life," says Baker, a 64-year-old who works at H&S Bakery. Baker now advocates for C.O.P. programs all over the city at Bealefeld's behest. "He makes everyone he knows want to do things and makes them proud to take care of things in their neighborhoods."
When Bealefeld was announced as a candidate for commissioner, 20 residents from his former district showed up at City Hall to show their support of his nomination. "He's sincere. He's always talking about community and the sense of community and teaches it to his cops," Baker continues, "which is important because a lot of the officers that go through the academy aren't from the city and don't understand about city life."
Many of Bealefeld's approaches to crime seem more practical than tactical. Right now, he's working to educate his officers about bupenorphrine (a prescription drug used to treat addiction to IV opiates such as heroin and oxycontin), including what it looks like, so officers don't inadvertently seize the medication thinking it is an illegal drug. He's also excited about his department's partnership with Probation and Parole. In the past, when a serious offender got back into street crime, the tactic was to get a wire tap and build a new case against the guy.
"You know what all that takes? Time," says Bealefeld. "What is his Achilles heel? The probation." Under the new plan, if a high-risk offender doesn't fulfill the tenets of his probation—showing up for urinalysis, GED classes, or meetings with his parole officer—the police can pick him up and hope the judges won't be lenient when the guy shows up in court again.
It seems a little too simple, so simple one wonders why no one has thought of this before. Bealefeld doesn't mince words on this point. He attributes it to a lot of "political hoo-ha."
"Frankly, I don't know why it didn't happen before, but it's happening now and it's a beautiful, wonderful thing."
Bealefeld does seem to be beginning his tenure in the city's most infamous chair with support from politicians, enthusiasm from some neighborhood quarters, and cautious optimism from others. Some of his efforts seem to be paying off: In January of this year, there were 14 homicides in the city, the lowest January number since 1978. By the end of February, there were 28 homicides compared to 45 at the same time in 2007. Overall, non-fatal shootings were down 38 percent at the time of this article's writing.
But not everyone is breaking out the pom-poms just yet. The ACLU of Maryland is currently in litigation with the Baltimore City Police Department, challenging what the ACLU alleges are thousands of unconstitutional arrests. The case cites numerous instances when people were arrested for minor offenses such as littering or loitering, taken to central booking, strip-searched, and held, only to be released without being charged. The lawsuit was in discovery at the time of this article's writing.
Although he knows that ultimately his time as commissioner will be judged by the number of homicides that happen during his tenure, he wants to be remembered for something very different: "At the end of the day, has Fred Bealefeld moved this police department closer to the community and developed a professional, respected force that people rely on for service and trust for service?" he posits. "That is a bigger legacy."