Donald Fry: Addressing the city’s towing kickback scandal head-on

By Donald C. Fry

Since becoming commissioner of the Baltimore City Police Department in 2007, Frederick H. Bealefeld III has worked hard to nurture community confidence in the integrity of the city’s police force.

Last week’s arrests or suspensions of more than two dozen city police officers for participating in a towing kickback scheme present the biggest challenge to those efforts in Bealefeld’s tenure.

It’s also unfortunate that this breach of law enforcement ethics was uncovered in an election year when challengers to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake might be tempted to exploit it.

It’s encouraging, however, that both Bealefeld and Rawlings-Blake have demonstrably resisted the temptation to downplay the seriousness of this police kickback scheme. They have done quite the opposite.

Bealefeld himself arrested the police officers who are charged with enriching themselves through a towing scheme. He took their badges in a sting conducted at the police department’s training academy and had police cadets participate in the arrests. It was a dramatic and emphatic teaching moment for the city’s police recruits.

Mayor Rawlings-Blake immediately denounced the towing scheme, issuing a statement that she “will not tolerate criminal or unethical activity by any city employee.” She also pledged a comprehensive review of the city’s towing polices that are jointly administered by the city’s Department of Transportation and the Police Department.

Characteristic of his personal style, Bealefeld dealt with the towing scandal directly and aggressively. Rather than just conduct a big press conference and hope the issue would go away, he not did shy away from TV interviews. He answered reporters’ questions and spoke frankly and straightforwardly to both the media and the community.

In doing so, Bealefeld articulated a strong message about his approach to police corruption, saying that there shouldn’t be anyone in a supervisory or management role in the department who isn’t giving all of the operations under their responsibility thorough and close scrutiny in the wake of this serious breach of police integrity.

“This is an absolute affirmation to our commitment to policing and ferreting out corruption within our ranks,” he told reporters.

During his tenure as commissioner, Bealefeld has worked hard with community and business leaders to restore public confidence in a police force whose integrity has been, over the years, a very touchy subject within the community, as well as within the force itself.

The discovery of the towing scheme undermines that effort. Its scope is troubling, with as many as 30 officers said to be involved, according to media reports.

Both Mayor Rawlings-Blake and Commissioner Bealefeld are to be commended for making it clear what their policy positions are. They are pledging that neither they, nor anyone who reports to them, will take this notable breach of confidence in the city’s police lightly.

They know that the community will be watching closely for decisive follow-up after the initial media coverage has dissipated.

Police are human beings who, like anyone, are subject to the temptations that come with power. But there is no more essential element of a city’s public safety or a community’s rule of law than the integrity of the people entrusted to enforce it.

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