Reformist Baltimore police chief fired just one year into consent decree

The top cop fired Friday had vocally embraced court-enforced reforms to the department's culture of abuse.

Kevin Davis, pictured here talking to Baltimore residents in 2015, was fired Friday as Commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department. CREDIT: Brittany Greeson/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Kevin Davis, pictured here talking to Baltimore residents in 2015, was fired Friday as Commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department. CREDIT: Brittany Greeson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Barely a year into a hard-won agreement to reform its out-of-control police department, the city of Baltimore suddenly changed course on Friday when Mayor Catherine Pugh (D) fired the police chief who had embraced the clean-up effort.

“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,” Pugh said in a written statement. She fired Commissioner Kevin Davis, the city’s top cop since just after the 2015 riots in response to the suspicious death of Freddie Gray in police custody, and named Daryl DeSousa to replace him.

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Davis had been a vocal public advocate for the court-supervised deal that requires the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) to take numerous concrete steps to change officers’ conduct toward citizens.

The deal, known as a consent decree, took almost a year to hammer out with input from federal Department of Justice (DOJ) officials, local cops, and community organizations. It followed a year-long investigation of policing in Baltimore under former Attorney General Loretta Lynch that revealed a long pattern of systematic abuses of residents’ civil rights, ranging from simple day-to-day harassment to egregious mistreatment such as punitive strip and cavity searches performed in broad daylight on city sidewalks. Such decrees typically remain in force for years as departments slowly move toward full compliance. Baltimore’s was signed in January of 2017.

DeSousa pledged to simultaneously toughen up policing and maintain the city’s reform campaign — a combination rarely achieved in the history of major city law enforcement, which tends to cycle between repressive, violent crackdowns after crime spikes and complicated, slow efforts to change deep-rooted institutional culture when abusive patterns eventually come to light.

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“The citizens of Baltimore will see us getting ahead of crime,” DeSousa said Friday, promising to dispatch extra officers to known trouble spots with orders to go after “trigger-pullers.” But he also “couched his tough warning for gunmen by promising ‘real active constitutional policing,'” according to the Washington Post.

Even in the year since Davis stood alongside Lynch to affirm his commitment to rooting out the lawlessness documented by DOJ investigators, the headwinds that always face such civil rights reforms in city policing were on frequent display within his department.

Hundreds of criminal cases were tainted after multiple groups of BPD officers were caught on video planting drug evidence on citizens. A BPD detective who was set to testify against another group of fellow officers in a separate corruption case was shot and killed with his own gun in November, and no arrests have been made to date. After Det. Sean Suiter’s death, BPD kept the entire surrounding neighborhood on lockdown for days — prompting the American Civil Liberties Union to raise alarm about the constitutionality of the tactics. Davis had asked the FBI to take over the Suiter investigation that has riven his department, but the feds rejected his call for aid.

DeSousa therefore receives some dark inheritances: a city with a genuine violent crime problem rather than the ginned-up statistical deceit commonly invoked by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and President Donald Trump, a possible internal war between old cops suspected of being crooked and colleagues who want to help hold them accountable, and both legal and practical obligations to improve officer treatment of the citizens whose help the department needs to solve crimes.

Pugh’s choice to shove out Davis and elevate DeSousa also fits a nationwide pattern. Reformist chiefs are often plucked from outside the departments they seek to change, as veteran crime journalist Joe Domanick and others have noted. Davis built his career in nearby Prince George’s and Anne Arundel Counties, and was an import at BPD.

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Such grafts often do not take. Sometimes an outsider is sincere and ambitious about changing culture in ways that raise veterans’ hackles or put them on the outs with the local police union. Dictates from the top won’t really alter street-level work if sergeants — a police department’s vital middle-management class — tell the rank-and-file to ignore the new boss’ mandates and stick to the old way of doing business.

And where an outsider chief publicly linked to reform thinking does gain traction, it’s not necessarily happening for the right reasons. Garry McCarthy, for example, was plucked out of New York when then-Mayor Corey Booker (D) needed a reformist chief in Newark, NJ, in the mid-2000s. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) soon poached McCarthy to head his own embattled department.

In each case, federal investigations of his department soon followed and reporters unearthed evidence that the drops in crime statistics McCarthy delivered had been based in data manipulation.

When an outsider chief falls, the next step is typically to hand the keys to a homegrown talent. DeSousa is in his 30th year with BPD, making him a known quantity throughout the department. That familiarity may give him greater credibility among his peers and subordinates — but it also means he was reared in the same internal culture that the DOJ investigation credited with producing a pattern of wanton civil rights abuses, beatings, curbside humiliations, and killings.

The sergeants and DeSousa know each other well. When the new boss publicly embraces a contradictory dual mandate of cracking heads and sticking to the Constitution, his old colleagues can draw on years of experience to suss out what exactly he wants from them.

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That’s a fundamental shift from the inherently messier relationship an outsider championing reform has with veteran cops who don’t know him. How the change will affect life on the street for Baltimore residents remains to be seen.