Baltimore's conundrum: Should police commissioners be elected?

Following months of unrest in Baltimore, some citizens are calling for the next city police commissioner to be elected. But experts say that may not be the best idea.

Colin Campbell/The Baltimore Sun/AP
Protesters shout as council members leave the chamber at city hall in Baltimore Wednesday. A city council subcommittee voted to make Kevin Davis the permanent police commissioner Wednesday.

The Baltimore City Council looks set to make interim police commissioner Kevin Davis the head of the city’s embattled police department on a full-time basis, despite vociferous objections from some community members. 

Twelve protesters were arrested in Baltimore City Hall Wednesday morning, hours after a city council committee approved Mr. Davis’s appointment. The decision will be voted on by the full city council next week, but some protesters – wary of the department and how it has handled unrest since the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in April – have said the city should hold an election to determine its next top cop.

The Rev. Cortly C.D. Witherspoon, a well-known community activist, derided the hearing as a “coronation,” The Baltimore Sun reported.

But while directly electing a police commissioner may seem more democratic, law enforcement experts say there are many reasons why that may not be in Baltimore’s best interests.

Evidence suggests that judges can alter how they do their job – forsaking tougher decisions for politically popular ones – when they’re facing election. Moreover, some in law enforcement say they feel more pressure to be responsive as appointed officials than as elected officials, given that they have several years of job security after an election.

Protesters in Baltimore are currently considering a hybrid solution – giving the public some say in the process. But many law enforcement officials are wary of throwing top cops headlong into the political process.

Most political campaigns involve candidates “promising to do things they have no means to accomplish, [and making] claims about opponents that aren’t substantiated,” says Jim Bueerman, president of the Police Foundation, a think tank in Washington. “Bringing more politics than necessary into that level of the administration of justice is a bad idea.”

“I think it would create more problems than it would solve,” he adds.

Baltimore has been roiling since Mr. Gray’s controversial death. Days of rioting immediately followed, and the city has seen a rise in violent crime that cost former police commissioner Anthony Batts his job in July. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced in early September that she will not seek reelection next year.

Firing Mr. Batts and replacing him with Davis, the deputy police commissioner at the time, has been one of Mayor Rawlings-Blake’s most visible responses to the protests. But protesters criticize Davis for how he handled protests during the pretrial hearings of the six officers charged in Gray’s death.

Davis is also being offered the chance to finish out Batts' contract, which runs another five years. If the new mayor wants to bring in a new police commissioner next year – which is likely if violent crime rates don't turn around before then – they would have to buy Davis out of his contract to the tune of $150,000 taxpayer dollars. Both protesters and some city councilors question these terms.

Clearly, residents “want to feel like they’re being heard,” especially after everything that has been happening in Baltimore this year, says Tod Burke, a criminologist at Radford University in Virginia.

“Having community input into any leadership position would prove beneficial, particularly when there’s a distrust either existing or brewing,” he adds.

But in most American cities, the head of the police department, be it a commissioner or a chief, is appointed by another senior city executive, typically the mayor or city manager. Some high-ranking law enforcement and criminal justice positions are elected, however, including most county sheriffs and some state judges.

But these examples come with some red flags.

Thirty-eight states in the United States elect their Supreme Court judges in some way, and money has come to influence these elections more and more in recent years. The more television attack ads that aired during state supreme court election, the less likely justices were to vote in favor of criminal defendants, according to a report last year from Emory University School of Law and the American Constitution Society.

In addition, elected law enforcement officers can use a majority mandate to embark on legally dubious policies against minorities. Joe Arpaio, sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona, has been reelected five times on a platform on a zero-tolerance toward undocumented immigrants. But in 2013, a federal court found that his policies violated the rights of many Latinos.

While elected law enforcement officials may be directly accountable to voters, appointed officials may in some ways be under more pressure.

Mr. Bueerman, who was chief of police in Redlands, Calif., for 13 years, says he often got reminders of the relative comfort of the sheriff’s office.

“I used to hear from the sheriff, ‘I have to run for my position every four years, and you have to run for your position every two weeks,’ which was when city council meetings were,” says Bueerman.

Professor Burke agrees.

“If you don’t like the [elected official] … you have to wait until the next election or get an impeachment,” he says. “If you appoint someone, you can get rid of them at any point.”

Mr. Witherspoon said at the Baltimore City Council meeting that the police commissioner should be elected. “We are currently looking now to see if this can be done,” he tells the Monitor.

One idea is a hybrid: The mayor should be required to put forward three nominees who would meet with community groups to be vetted. “That does not tie the mayor’s hands to go with their recommendation, but at the least it gives the community a voice,” he says.

“Last night each citizen had three minutes to talk,” he adds, referring to the council meeting. “The community doesn’t have a voice in that process.”

But others suggest that citizens have already made their voice heard, with Rawlings-Blake choosing to not run for reelection.

“That accountability can be exercised or made through the election of the mayor,” says A. Dwight Pettit, a veteran Baltimore defense attorney. “We might be seeing the result of accountability.”

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