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Baltimore’s new police commissioner faces numerous challenges

Deputy Police Commissioner Darryl DeSousa will take the helm in a city struggling with a feverish pace of killings


Mayor Catherine Pugh listens as new Baltimore police commissioner Darryl DeSousa makes remarks at City Hall during a news conference, Friday, Jan. 19, 2018 in Baltimore.

Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun via AP

By David McFadden
Associated Press

BALTIMORE — Deputy Police Commissioner Darryl DeSousa, who has steadily risen through the ranks during a 30-year career with Baltimore’s police department, will take the helm of the force in a city struggling with a feverish pace of killings.

After a record year in per-capita homicides, Baltimore’s mayor on Friday fired the city’s police commissioner after 2½ years on the job and named DeSousa to the top post, saying a change in leadership was needed immediately.

“I am impatient. We need violence reduction. We need the numbers to go down faster,” Mayor Catherine Pugh said at a news conference at City Hall after announcing DeSousa’s promotion.

Although violent crime rates in Baltimore have been high for decades, Baltimore ended 2017 with 343 killings, bringing the annual homicide rate to its highest ever: roughly 56 killings per 100,000 people. Baltimore, which has shrunk over decades, currently has about 615,000 inhabitants.

In contrast, New York City had 290 homicides last year, its fewest on record in the modern era for the city of 8.5 million people. Los Angeles, with about 4 million residents, saw 305 homicides last year.

The challenges facing DeSousa are numerous: the pervasive mistrust of many citizens due to a history of corruption and discriminatory police practices; a federal corruption investigation into a group of indicted officers; and the unsolved slaying of a detective that has produced rumors but no arrests.

His promotion also comes as a monitoring team is overseeing court-ordered reforms to Baltimore’s police department as part of a federal consent decree reached last January between Baltimore and the U.S. Justice Department due to discriminatory and unconstitutional policing.

DeSousa, a 53-year-old city resident who joined the department in 1988, said he’s looking forward to the challenges. He said he’ll approach his role as a strategic thinker who knows the ins and outs of the department’s operations as well as law enforcement approaches that have had success in other U.S. cities.

“Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a chess player, and I don’t like to be outwitted,” he told reporters.

The head of Baltimore’s police union, Gene Ryan, said the leadership shakeup is already improving morale, and “will bring about the positive changes that will allow us to achieve our mission of violence reduction.”

DeSousa on Friday pledged to reduce crime by putting more uniformed officers on the streets and saturating “hot spots,” an effort he said is already underway. He said he had a message for the city’s violent repeat offenders, a rotating cast of “trigger pullers” that law enforcers say are responsible for an outsized percentage of the city’s crime.

“We’re coming after them. And I want to let everybody know that it will be done in a constitutional manner,” DeSousa said.

The native New Yorker has served in just about every police department role over the years and in 2017 was assigned to lead the patrol bureau, the largest in Baltimore’s force. His appointment will be made permanent following “appropriate approvals,” Pugh’s office said.

He appears to have the backing of the City Council and a number of Baltimore’s civic leaders and organizers. Councilman Brandon Scott, who described DeSousa’s promotion as a “great decision,” said he received numerous phone messages from community leaders praising the move.

“Never before did I get text messages from community leaders saying, ‘Thank you, this is the right choice,’” Scott said, describing the three previous times during his career as an elected official that a police commissioner was replaced.

Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, tweeted that she was perplexed by the leadership change. In a statement, she said Commissioner Kevin Davis had shown “unyielding commitment” to police reforms.

Some Baltimore residents were also skeptical that a veteran as entrenched as DeSousa could bring true reform.

“He’s been there for 30 years and that’s the guy who’s going to change things up?” said resident Gerald Spann, who was washing the windows of a convenience store where gunmen and officers exchanged a barrage of gunfire earlier this week.

Davis, previously chief of police in Maryland’s Anne Arundel County, replaced Anthony Batts in the job in October 2015. Batts was fired amid a spike in homicides after Freddie Gray died of a fatal spinal cord injury received while in police custody. The black man’s death triggered massive protests and the city’s worst riots in decades.

Pugh, who took office in December 2016, said she was grateful to Davis “for all that he has done to implement the initiatives underway to address violent crime at its root causes.”