Sitting in a dimly lit sixth-floor conference room in Baltimore City Hall, Anthony Barksdale is quizzing police commanders about “known-knowns,” a term he uses for recurring problem spots. He and his deputy have been venturing out into such areas, taking pictures and videos, which are put onto projector screens.

“We can’t have that in communities,” he says of one video that he says shows men dealing drugs while warming themselves near an open flame in a garbage can. “We can’t have it.”

Barksdale was once a young deputy police commissioner overseeing similar meetings, and since the summer of 2022 has been back as the deputy mayor overseeing public safety.

His second stint has started like his first: presiding over one of the biggest year-over-year declines in homicides in the city’s history.

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When Barksdale took over Police Department operations in 2007, the city suddenly averted what was considered then a near-certain march toward 300 homicides for the first time since the 1990s. The next year, the city saw a 17% decline, and within three years the city had recorded fewer than 200 killings for the first time since the 1970s.

Amid record-high homicide rates in recent years, Mayor Brandon Scott asked Barksdale to return in July 2022. Killings have fallen below 300 victims for the first time in eight years, a 20% year-over-year drop and the biggest single year’s decline in victims in at least five decades.

There are thousands of people engaged in the work of trying to reduce violence in the city, and millions of decisions or flashpoints that could preserve or result in the loss of a life. But Barksdale, who despite appearing as a CNN commentator after retirement has had almost no public profile as a city official, is convinced that the decline is no fluke. While crediting others, he also says he’s confident that he has helped guide the city to this result.

“We’ve had winning years ... and here we are again,” he said in an interview.

Among other things, he points to five historically troubled areas where he implored police to sharpen their focus. Now overseeing a broader portfolio of city agencies, he also has pushed resources from the fire, housing and public works departments into those areas as well.

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Those zones collectively saw homicides drop 32% and non-fatal shootings 36% compared to last year — more than the citywide averages.

Scott, who said he learned about public safety from Barksdale as a young city staff member and councilperson, said Barksdale’s presence has “allowed us to unlock the potential of the full team.” Former Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, meanwhile, expressed doubts over whether such credit is due.

Barksdale 2.0 still demands timely data and follow-up

Just as in his previous tenure, Barksdale looms behind the scenes. As a deputy police commissioner from 2007 through 2012, he dominated infamously grueling weekly oversight meetings called Comstat. Barksdale 2.0 is now bespectacled, and instead of a crisp white police uniform can be found in khakis and a blazer, overseeing the City Hall version of Comstat, called PoliceStat. He’s measured in his comments, and even occasionally cracks a joke.

The principles he stresses are the same: timely and accurate data and relentless follow-up.

Barksdale was born and raised in West Baltimore, and in his application to join the Police Department he wrote that his goal was to stop drugs and violence in his grandfather’s neighborhood. His first patrol assignment after graduating from the academy included an area nearby where his family got crabs every Mother’s Day.

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“It’s an environment I’m used to — I know what’s going on because I’ve seen it all my life,” he said in a 2018 interview.

Early on, he was named an assistant to then-Commissioner Ed Norris, and as then-Mayor Martin O’Malley implemented a more data-driven approach to city services and policing, Barksdale was tutored by the creator of New York City’s Compstat program, Jack Maple. He became a devout believer in its principles.

At the time, the department was immersed in the drug war, and Barksdale said he learned how important intelligence and targeted enforcement could help close cases and take repeat violent offenders off the streets. Arrests declined by one-quarter, and the department formally disavowed “zero-tolerance” policies.

“Tony’s biggest strength is his tenacity,” former Police Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld III said. “When he gets a hold of an issue or something that he’s interested in, I think he pours every bit of himself into that. There were things he was also completely not interested in.”

The plan leaned heavily on specialized plainclothes units, which were the source of a disproportionate number of complaints and abuses. Barksdale has said that if that was a byproduct of his push for results, it was unintended and unknown to him. But at best, agency leaders at the time failed to care enough about curbing such abuses, and at worst encouraged them.

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Two major differences between then and now: All officers are outfitted with body cameras, and a consent decree monitoring team is looking over the department’s shoulder. The decline in arrests has been continued: During his last year, 2012, police made 62,000 arrests, a number that fell to 13,600 by 2021. This year, arrests are up 4% or about 600 over last year.

When Bealefeld retired in 2012, Barksdale wanted the top post but failed the public-facing part of the audition. City officials at the time also expressed concern about the tactics the agency had been employing. When a commissioner with a reputation for reform was hired instead, Barksdale went on medical leave and retired from the department a year later.

Barksdale became an on-air contributor to CNN in later years, and a vocal critic of the city’s policing efforts and the consent decree on Twitter. In 2020, Barksdale, interviewed by Fox45, said he had “no faith” in Harrison. Asked why, he said: “I’m looking at the data.”

“I see a continued failure by executive command, the commissioner and his top team, to understand how to fight violent crime,” Barksdale also said in a WBAL Radio interview in 2020. “They’re missing deployments, across the city of Baltimore, over and over again.”

So it raised eyebrows when Scott hired Barksdale in 2022 to oversee public safety.

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Anthony Barksdale speaks during a news conference in July 2022 in which he was chosen by Mayor Brandon Scott as deputy mayor for public safety. (Kirk McKoy/The Baltimore Banner)

Barksdale said he cried when Scott reached out to him. “I said, ‘Are you sure? Please be sure you want me back,’ ” Barksdale recalled. “Mayor Scott said, ‘Tony, you’re coming. Let’s go.’ ”

In 2019, Harrison had implemented a “micro-zone” concept that identified 130 areas throughout the city where resources would be focused. Two years later, the number of zones was reduced to 81. Barksdale and Scott say one of the first changes implemented after he joined City Hall was to cut down the number that they wanted police to focus on even more significantly: to five.

“The zones we have now are pretty much the same problematic communities that I first put the zones in in 2007,” Barksdale said.

Barksdale says he “turbocharged” the PoliceStat program, a biweekly meeting at City Hall where top police leadership reviews trends and “action items” with Scott, Barksdale and other city officials. He said the Police Department’s main measures of how police were spending their time — foot patrols, business checks, “directed patrol” (driving around an area of concern) and traffic stops — weren’t accounting for the usefulness of such efforts.

What about the consent decree that he had railed against? Barksdale said he had “bought into the hype” from officers complaining about it, but after rejoining city government he decided to sit for the police academy course on stops, searches and seizures. “There’s no excuse,” Barksdale said he determined. “They can [still] do the job.”

But he’s still feeling his way through the new environment. At a recent PoliceStat meeting, Barksdale said he had been driving around a high-crime area and was disturbed to see people who he believed were dealing drugs while staying warm from fires lit in barrels. He said he wanted police officers and firefighters to team up to curb such activity because, in his observation, drug dealers were using the fires to stay warm while dealing.

“Does that violate the consent decree?” he asked.

He’s also been pushing for increased use of informants and “debriefings” — asking arrestees for information about crimes — even as the agency is awaiting guidance from the consent decree monitoring team. “I don’t know that they believe in debriefing,” Col. John Herzog said in response to questions from Barksdale about feedback from the monitoring team.

Harrison tendered his resignation in May, as did Shantay Jackson, who had been leading Scott’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement. Text messages obtained by The Banner showed that Jackson had written to Harrison that they should “take out” Barksdale. Jackson has declined to elaborate on the sentiment behind the messages.

While Harrison brushed off suggestions this summer that Barksdale’s presence contributed to his decision to leave, he was also reluctant in an interview this month to give Barksdale credit for this year’s declines in crime.

“The strategy didn’t change when he was hired,” Harrison said.

Harrison said it was the city’s long-term plans finally paying off. “It just takes time,” Harrison said. “Nothing changed other than a heavy City Hall focus on accountability and making sure we had fidelity to the model. But there was no change in strategy.”

New Police Commissioner Richard Worley, for his part, said his relationship with Barksdale is “great” and recalled his leadership dating back to his time as a lieutenant.

“He’s tough. He holds you accountable,” Worley said. “If you do your job, and you’re thorough in your job, and you’re honest with him, it’ll go a long way. And that’s all that he wants.”

At one point in the PoliceStat meeting, an analyst displayed photos that Barksdale and his deputy, Sam Johnson, took after visiting a mini mart in Southwest Baltimore where a quadruple shooting recently took place. It showed young men crowded in the entrance.

“I would’ve loved to have gone to these locations and seen officers engaged. It might’ve just been bad timing. But I know if I just happen to go by and I see activity, then that registers to me.”

Worley paused and offered some pushback. “Unless we put a car there 24/7, I don’t think we’re going to ever completely rid that area,” he said.

“I don’t think you can rid. But I can get out the car, and walk in the store,” Barksdale said.

“I agree,” Worley replied.

“That was a big shootout, and they brought out some big guns, and they shot it out right there in front of that store. So that should be a location of concern, 24/7,” Barksdale said. “And I think I’ve said enough on that.”

Banner reporter Lee Sanderlin contributed to this article.

Justin Fenton is an investigative reporter for the Baltimore Banner. He previously spent 17 years at the Baltimore Sun, covering the criminal justice system. His book, "We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops and Corruption," was released by Random House in 2021 and became an HBO miniseries. 

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