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Search for new Baltimore County police chief focused on diversity, community relationships

Published on: 01/30/2023


Next month, members of an eight-person panel will begin interviewing candidates for the county’s next police chief before they recommend finalists to Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.

Twenty people have applied to the position, which was advertised nationally and remains open, following the conclusion of former Chief Melissa Hyatt’s contract Dec. 5.

Interim Chief Dennis Delp, tapped by Olszewski to temporarily replace Hyatt, is not among the candidates, after initially indicating he wanted the permanent job.

“For personal reasons, I have decided not to pursue the appointment at this time,” Delp said in a statement Thursday.

After reviewing applications, the panel will hold first-round interviews in the coming weeks and recommend to Olszewski which candidates should advance in the process. The Baltimore County Council must confirm Olszewski’s nomination.

The advisory panel includes Baltimore County Council Chairman Julian Jones, Baltimore County NAACP President Danita Tolson and three community members, including retired Baltimore County Police officer Don Bridges.

“There’s a really strong mix of people who bring that community perspective but also that law enforcement perspective to the table, in recognition of the dual imperatives of wanting a chief who can both keep our community safe, but do so equitably,” Olszewski said.

In an interview with The Baltimore Sun on Thursday, Olszewski emphasized the huge responsibility of selecting a person to lead the country’s 18th largest police department, which has just about 2,000 sworn officer positions and a budget of about $224 million.

The group met for the first time Wednesday and plans to spend this week creating a list of questions to ask each candidate, panel member Susana Barrios said.

The job posting for the position lists the chief’s salary as “negotiable.” Hyatt earned a salary of $286,110.

Hyatt, the first woman to lead the department, emphasized strengthening community trust and bolstering officer wellness. She faced a no-confidence vote from the police union representing Baltimore County officers last year. Olszewski has not given reasons for why Hyatt left the agency in December, calling it a personnel decision.

When Olszewski nominated Hyatt in 2019, some criticized him for not picking an African American candidate.

Baltimore County, whose population is about 30% Black, has never had a Black police chief.

Tensions have flared between the department and the county’s Black community, most notably after a county police officer fatally shot 23-year-old Korryn Gaines in her Randallstown apartment in 2016 and more recently after a video showed an officer punching a 17-year-old at a Woodlawn shopping center.

A police data dashboard shows that through the end of June, the most recent data available, county police had 81 use-of-force incidents in 2022. Black people were the target of that force in 71% of incidents, despite making up roughly one-third of the county.

Data from 2020 showed county police disproportionately stopped and arrested Black motorists.

As of June, the police department’s sworn members were roughly 78.8% white and 15.5% Black, according to figures provided by the agency. The U.S. Department of Justice has sued the county over a police recruit test it said was unfairly biased against Black applicants.

Baltimore County NAACP First Vice President Roland Patterson said that naming a Black police chief would signal a commitment to diversifying the department’s upper ranks and reducing racial disparities in policing. “If we could have an Afro-American chief, it would just do wonders to turn the ship in the right direction,” Patterson said.

To find candidates, the county asked the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, National Forum of Black Public Administrators and the International Association of Chiefs of Police to share information about the position.

Bridges, a retired school resource officer chosen by the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 4 to sit on the panel, said the search has so far yielded a diverse group of candidates from all over the country.

Bridges said he will evaluate applicants based on whether they have a “modern-day” vision for the department and their willingness to prioritize community policing and outreach to faith organizations.

“The voice that I’m bringing is the voice of the African American community on the western side of Baltimore County, which is where I live and where I work and where I worship,” said Bridges, who retired in November and now works for Baltimore County Public Schools as a safety manager.

“I was one of the grunts for 32 years and I want a chief that is motivational. I want a chief that is going to lead by example,” Bridges said. “Diversity is nice, but I think what we need now is the right chief for this time.”

Shelley Knox, an officer and president of the Blue Guardians group, which represents about 200 people of color in the Baltimore County Police, said her organization hopes the next chief will focus on diversity in hiring, career development and promotion within the department.

Tolson, the NAACP representative on the panel, said she will evaluate candidates based on their commitment to championing people of color and women within the department. She also said she is looking for someone who is down-to-earth and willing to be present in the community.

“I, of course, want minority representation, that would be nice but, ultimately somebody who is willing to serve the multiple diverse populations,” Tolson said.

Barrios, the vice president of the Latino Racial Justice Circle, said she wants to ensure the voices of Baltimore County’s immigrant residents are taken into consideration when choosing the next chief. Additionally, she wants a leader who understands how trauma and mental health issues intersect with policing.

“I would like somebody who has a background in serving in diverse neighborhoods and diverse populations,” Barrios said. “The panel is looking for diversity and the panel is looking for somebody that has knowledge of Baltimore County.”

Along with Barrios, Bridges and Tolson, community member Sam Weaver sits on the panel, along with county deputy administrative officers Rebecca Young and Sameer Sidh and Mandy Remmell, the county’s director of community engagement.

Interviews with candidates will be conducted privately and the list of finalists will not be publicized, Olszewski said. In recent years, police departments in cities like Raleigh, North Carolina, have allowed community members to offer feedback on finalists for chief and ask questions.

“Just like every other HR process, respecting that a lot of these candidates are high-profile individuals, some of whom have current jobs, we’re going to respect their confidentiality,” Olszewski said.

While the county doesn’t plan to hold town halls as part of the police chief selection process, Olszewski said his administration is open to public input and will accept feedback at budget town halls scheduled over the next few months.

“I’ve spent the last four-plus years listening to the public about what they want to see in policing in our community,” he said.

Olszewski said the next chief should be committed to addressing the community’s concerns about sexual assaults, including addressing the backlog of rape testing kits, actively investigating cases and training staff.

A lawsuit filed by sexual assault survivors highlighted shortcomings in how cases were handled in the county, including the destruction of rape kits. New state laws require rape kits to be maintained and in most cases tested, after The Sun reported in 2019 that Baltimore County had destroyed more than 500 over six years.

The police department recently launched a website showing testing workflow and how many kits in its possession have been tested.

When it comes to internal department dynamics, Olszewski said he is looking for someone who will improve officer wellness, recruit diverse cadet classes and foster a culture of respect among the rank and file.

More broadly, Olszewski said, he is looking for a chief who can balance successful crime-fighting with an understanding of cultural differences, including the needs of non-English speakers, as well as someone committed to “upstream” investments that prevent crime, such as resources for young people.

“To the extent we’ve seen some troubling activity, a lot of it has been tied back to behavioral health and to domestic violence,” he said, which requires a chief willing to expand crisis intervention efforts and work to disrupt cycles of violence.

Author :Cassidy Jensen

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