By Stephen Janis, Special to the AFRO

On the surface, Mayor Catherine Pugh’s decision to remove Baltimore Police Department (BPD) Commissioner Kevin Davis, and replace him with BPD veteran Darryl De Sousa, seems like just another changing of the guard for a department used to turnover at the top.

Darryl De Sousa, 53, is the eighth Baltimore police commissioner in 18 years. (Courtesy Photo)

But, like many things which occur inside the sprawling law environment agency, which soaks up more half the city’s discretionary spending, appearances are often misleading.

Both current and former law enforcement officers, along with members of the city council who spoke to The AFRO, had mostly good things to say about De Sousa, a Morgan State University graduate, who rose through the ranks during his roughly 30-year career with the department.

“He has boundless energy,” said former BPD Colonel and retired Indianapolis Police Chief Rick Hite.

“He is one of the few people in the department who truly understands the community.”

There was also optimism that an African-American who had worked his way to the top could bolster morale among younger officers of color.

“I was talking to a commander who told me how much it would mean for a young black officer to see someone in the chief’s job who is African-American,” Councilman Kristerfer Burnett said.

But confidence in De Sousa was tempered by a shared concern that complex, and at times conflicting crosscurrents are buffeting the department.  Particularly what many see will be a delicate balancing act of fighting a surging crime rate while reigning in an agency under a federal consent decree for unconstitutional policing.

“He has the talent and the integrity. I think he will do a good job if he selects the right people,”  said Dr. Tyrone Powers, director of the Homeland Security and Criminal Justice Institute at Anne Arundel Community College.

But Powers, a former FBI agent and Maryland state trooper, cautioned that until the BPD reckons with a series of scandals that have rocked the department it will be difficult to make it more effective.  Especially with the continuing fallout over scandal involving the elite Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF), whose members are accused of robbing residents, dealing drugs, and stealing overtime pay.

“The Gun Trace Task Force is part of a systemic problem, it’s part of the culture” said Powers.  “That is not the only special unit where it was allowed to happen.”

During the opening arguments Jan. 23, in the trial for two of those GTTF officers, Marcus Taylor and Daniel Hersl. Attorneys for Hersl described a department that was willing to overlook bad behavior in exchange for stats.

“The mandate of the Gun Trace Task Force was to get guns off the street,” attorney William Purpura told the jury.  “We don’t care how you do, just do it.”

Which is why Hersl’s attorney also brushed aside allegations he stole overtime, arguing the thousands of dollars in payouts for hours he didn’t work were sanctioned by his superiors.

“This overtime was given with a wink and an eye with full knowledge of command,” Purpura argued while recounting an unofficial incentive plan, which awarded four to eight hours of overtime for each confiscated gun.

It’s this dilemma, how to fix the management culture of a department that, at best, looked the other way when officers broke the law while fighting crime, Powers says, will be De Sousa’s most daunting task.

“Dealing with issues of crime and issues within the department are not mutually exclusive,” Powers said.  “It’s tough to do, but fixing one does in fact help you address the other.”

A big part of this balancing act will require substantive changes at the top.  A process that appeared to have begun this week with the resignation of two high-level commanders, Deputy Commissioner Jason Johnson and Chief Ganesha Martin.

The resignations were accompanied by a statement from spokesman T.J. Smith that implied more changes were coming.

“The Commissioner-Designate will be defining the new organizational structure and command staff of the department,” Smith said in an email. “At that time, we will be in a position to share an updated organizational chart with the media and public.”

Sgt. Louis Hopson, a board member of The Vanguard Justice Society, an organization of Black BPD officers, said a broader purge would not surprise him.  .

“As he gets settled into the job, I think you will see more changes,” Hopson said.

Still, De Sousa’s appointment elicited plenty of optimism, even if his first week on the job produced mixed results.

At his first press conference at City Hall he promised to flood crime ‘hot spots’ with officers.  A strategy that didn’t appear to pan out as the city notched seven homicides in roughly five days.

Powers said it is critical for De Sousa to immediately tackle multiple tasks at the same time.

“Whatever changes he makes they have to happen sooner rather than later, we are a city in crisis.”