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Targeting guns: a cop's new priorities

A new focus: It's not the guy with the kilo of weed in his car, it's the one with the Glock in his waistband.

By / January 10, 2010

Three Baltimore teens were caught on an October evening in possession of marijuana. Because guns are the priority for police resources, Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III (below) took them home and spoke to their mother.

Michael Bonfigli/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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The top man in the Baltimore Police Department is standing in an alley not far from the housing complex people here call "Target City."

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It's a nickname born of gun violence and could apply to more than just those low-income apartments. There are dozens of shootings in this city each week – over drugs and respect, corners and feuds, domestic violence and business deals gone bad. There are a growing number of gang shoot-outs, too, including one last summer that sent tourists diving for cover at the popular Inner Harbor waterfront area. And in August, Baltimore made national news when 12 people were wounded at a shootout at a backyard barbecue.

All of which helps explains why, here in this trash-strewn alley illuminated by the headlights of a police cruiser, Frederick H. Bealefeld III is telling the mother of three teenagers that she – not the cops – is the one who needs to deal with the fact that he just caught her boys smoking marijuana.

Backing off can be just as important as cracking down, knows the veteran of Baltimore crime fighting.

Mr. Bealefeld speaks respectfully, like an old friend of the family who just happened upon the kids' misbehavior and is letting their mom know about it. His Baltimore accent echoes hers, and he's relaxed, showing none of the aggressiveness or attitude one might expect in a section of the city where tensions between police and residents are severe. Even the boys' mother, and the family pressing up behind her in the doorway, seem taken aback that this tall white man isn't, in fact, going to hassle them.

And that's all Bealefeld: accustomed to shaking expectations. He grew up in a family full of men who wore the blue uniform, and he rose from street corner patrolman who chased down his share of drug deals and gunslingers to become commissioner two years ago. He never went to college, has lived his whole life in Baltimore, and spent 28 years on the police force. Yet Bealefeld has bucked established department policy dramatically, pushing for a new, tighter focus on guns and gun offenders, while also emphasizing improved relations with the city's black residents.

He has become known as being exceptionally blunt, a colorful character who can disarm criminals, politicians, and citizens alike. The Baltimore Sun once published a column of Bealefeld quotes turned into poetry; after losing a bet with the mayor's office over who could best run the Baltimore Marathon, the commissioner sang – badly – Whitney Houston's "I'm Every Woman" on a popular radio show. He's a regular participant in neighborhood safety walks, meets with community groups across the city, and still plays in multiple weekly ice hockey games.

But more important than the image, people here say, are the results underlying the personality: Under his leadership, Baltimore has seen the lowest homicide numbers in 20 years; nonfatal shootings are also at a decades-long low. And according to the mayor's office, the number of complaints called in against the police – in the past an almost daily event – have dropped significantly.

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Earlier this decade, Baltimore tried to implement a "zero tolerance" policing policy – a strategy used to much acclaim in New York City, where officers arrested people for the most minor of violations. Get the troublemakers off the street, the theory went, and less trouble will happen; moreover, police might get tips from small-time crooks to nab the truly dangerous criminals.

In Baltimore, however, that strategy didn't make a dent: Homicides continued upward, and the historically bad relationship between police and black residents deteriorated further.