Is it time for another Donald Pomerleau?

The most recent revelations about the command environment of the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) have persuaded me of the truth of two facts: The first is that the BPD is at this point a bullshit operation. The second is that the next Police Commissioner should come from outside the department.

What do I mean by a “bullshit operation”? A bullshit operation is one in which all kind of bullshit is allowed to happen because of the absence of effective leadership.

I also mean that anything now being said by city or police officials about improvements made to the department or about positive changes to the norms and values of both commanders and rank-and-file officers must be taken with a grain of salt; in other words, as bullshit. The BPD has been in crisis for some time, and the crisis is deepening. Things won’t improve until the leadership improves.

There was an excellent letter in the Baltimore Sun on Sunday making the case that the city must look outside the department for the next Police Commissioner. The writer suggested that the problems within the BPD could no longer be written off as a “few bad apples” because it now appears that the barrel is rotten from the top down. Who is willing to take the risk that someone from within the department has not been compromised by the corrupted culture?

The allegations regarding former police commissioner Daryl De Sousa illustrate the problem. De Sousa, ousted because he is under federal indictment for failing to file income tax returns, now stands accused of favoritism by allowing Major Kimberly Burrus to go on a fellowship with the International Association of Chiefs of Police earlier this year.

Mr. De Sousa approved the fellowship, generally reserved for rising stars within the department, even though Major Burruss was under investigation for theft from a private foundation that she founded in 2015. The claim of favoritism was based on allegations that Major Burruss was having an affair with Colonel Osborne Robinson, De Sousa’s closest friend in the department, at the time she was awarded the fellowship.

Major Burruss’s former husband, BPD Captain Torran Burruss, also accused Colonel Robinson of harassing him about the affair by making lewd comments and gestures at work. Captain Burruss stated that he was on paid leave for a year because of the stress from the harassment, which he claimed that the department ignored.

If the allegations are true, it is a perfect example of what a bullshit operation looks like: Captain Burruss, by all accounts an exemplary police officer, suffers while Colonel Robinson retains his lofty position in the department. There is no other description of that outcome than bullshit. The behavior of which both Mr. De Sousa and Colonel Robinson are accused is toxic, destroys trust among superiors and subordinates, and would not be tolerated in any functional organization. The BPD currently is not a functional organization.

When Mr. De Sousa was sworn in as police commissioner in February, he stated that “I promise that I will not let this city down.” Maybe he meant that he wouldn’t let his cronies down. That seems to be the guiding principle of BPD commanders, for better or for worse.

Three years ago, I concluded that the system for maintaining the discipline of rank-and-file officers in the BPD was broken and could not be fixed until changes were made to the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (LEOBR). I have absolutely no doubt of the accuracy of that conclusion: Discipline is imposed too slowly and often too lightly, if it is imposed at all, and the situation is a direct consequence of the provisions of the LEOBR. Over the years, the systemic failure of the discipline has allowed a critical mass of mediocre and problem-causing officers to accumulate in the department.

The LEOBR is couched in terms of the “rights” of law enforcement officers. What it really does is confer privileges on law enforcement officers that no other employees, public or private, enjoy. It strips police chiefs of disciplinary authority over their own departments. I could go on and on, and I have done so many times.

I gradually have come to believe that there is a second serious problem with the BPD. The second problem is a deficiency in the general quality and integrity of leadership at the senior levels of the department. The two problems are separate, but together they have devastated the department.

When the Majestic Body Shop towing scandal broke six years ago, the question on my mind was how could a criminal enterprise involving so many officers go on for so long without it coming to the attention of BPD commanders? Did the large numbers of police vehicles routinely parked at the repair shop escape notice? In any event, the massive kickback scheme was not uncovered until a complaint from a competing towing company was turned over to the FBI.

The same question has arisen in the aftermath of an even worse scandal, the corrupt activities of the Gun Trace Task Force. Again, how could what amounted to a criminal gang operate with impunity inside the BPD over a period of several years or more? No commander ever had an inkling of what was going on?

A couple of weeks ago I floated the idea on Twitter that the next commissioner should come from outside the department. I got pushback from a couple of former members of the BPD for whom I have a lot of respect. They pointed out that a lack of knowledge of the city and the department can be a serious disadvantage. A new commissioner isn’t going to get rid of everyone, and it is helpful to know where the strengths and weaknesses of the department are right from the start.

I don’t disagree, but the advantage of familiarity must be weighed against what I now believe should be a presumption that anyone from within the department has, at the very least, formed alliances with commanders who either participated in or turned a blind eye toward corruption. It is worth recalling that, after the Majestic towing scandal, former commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III brought in an outsider to head the BPD division charged with rooting out corruption. Mr. Bealefeld had removed the previous director for socializing with an officer indicted on a charge of heroin trafficking.

It was not finding someone guilty by association; it was acting out of an abundance of caution when necessary to do so. I believe that Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh should adopt the same approach going forward.

I am not saying that there are not candidates with strong ties to the department who could not overcome the presumption of taint; there undoubtedly are. An additional reason that I believe finding an “inside” candidate will be difficult, however, is that I believe that the new commissioner should bring with him or her a cadre of experienced senior officers who also have no history with the department.

The new commissioner will need more than one set of trusted eyes and ears to get a handle on the BPD. I don’t know whether it is realistic to expect that even someone from the outside can put together that type of team, but I believe that it would be much harder for someone whose experience lies solely within the BPD to do so.

Is it time for another Donald Pomerleau? The hard-charging former Marine colonel was appointed commissioner in 1962 for the express purpose of modernizing and sanitizing an almost hopelessly antiquated and corrupt BPD.

History suggests that the BPD exchanged one set of problems for another during Mr. Pomerleau’s 15-year reign, but he dramatically modernized the department and cleaned out much of the corruption that had plagued the department for decades. He was ruthless in his approach to revamping the department, but it is doubtful that any other approach would have succeeded under the circumstances.

I hasten to add that I am talking about a latter-day Donald Pomerleau, black or white, updated to contemporary standards of racial and gender sensitivity and respect for the sanctity of civil rights. But I am talking about a commissioner with the determination and forcefulness of personality to halt the free fall in which the BPD finds itself; a lesser personality will be overwhelmed by the challenges facing the BPD.

Do I believe that the seven-member panel announced by Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh to help her select the next commissioner will recommend such a candidate? I doubt it. Such panels can have a mediocritizing effect in the sense that candidates representing more radical change have a harder time gaining consensus. Maybe it is time for Mayor Pugh to take the bull by the horns – for once – and risk selecting a potentially transformative commissioner, rather than settle for someone along the lines of Kevin Davis or Daryl De Sousa.

Even if Mayor Pugh finds the ideal candidate, do I believe that he or she will have the rapid impact that Donald Pomerleau had on changing the department? No, especially not in getting rid of the deadwood and worse that has been allowed to accumulate in the ranks of lieutenant and below because of the destruction of the disciplinary system by the LEOBR.

The irony is that it was Mr. Pomerleau’s efforts to clean out under-performing and corrupt police officers when he came to Baltimore that was the impetus behind enactment of the LEOBR in 1974. The General Assembly somehow was persuaded that the ability to get rid of bad officers quickly and efficiently was a problem rather than a solution to a problem. It is worth noting the bill enacting the LEOBR was pushed by legislators from the city who were knee-deep in the corruption that Mr. Pomerleau was brought in by former governor J. Millard Tawes to combat.

I emphasize, as I always do, that that there are many good men and women in the BPD who are plugging along, doing their jobs, despite inadequate leadership in the department. It is more important than ever that these good police officers hang in there and keep trying to make the city safe. I am sure that there is light at the end of the tunnel, although I admit that I don’t yet see it.

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