In a sign that Mayor Brandon Scott is growing impatient with the city’s rate of violent crime, former Baltimore Police deputy commissioner Anthony Barksdale is being brought back as a deputy mayor overseeing public safety.
Barksdale ran operations for the Police Department from 2007-2012, a period during which the city saw steep reductions in gun violence, including fewer than 200 homicides for the first time since the 1980s. Barksdale was known for emphasizing accountability from commanders related to crime in their districts, though critics say that was achieved through a heavy-handed approach that translated into aggressive policing.
Barksdale, a Baltimore native and on-air contributor for CNN in recent years, has been highly critical of the city’s approach to policing, the federal consent decree, and Commissioner Michael Harrison — who will now report to Barksdale.
“Baltimore leadership ... you took the city down this path. You chased after a consent decree handcuffing your own cops, while turning the city over to criminals,” Barksdale tweeted in November 2017. He recently deactivated his Twitter account, but some tweets can still be viewed.
During a news conference Friday to announce his appointment, Barksdale addressed his past remarks and shook hands with the commissioner before the TV cameras.
“While I’m here, while I’m speaking, I owe someone an apology for past statements,” he said. “I’m man enough to say, ‘I’m sorry Commissioner Harrison if I said anything in the past that is offensive to you. I want to work with you. I know we are going to work great together.’”
Harrison, at the news conference, said he was focused on his own work to lead the department.
“I can work with anyone,” Harrison said. “I have been given strict assurances by the mayor that the deputy mayor is here to support. ... I alone am the commissioner. I alone make the day-to-day decisions for the Baltimore Police Department. The mayor has given me strict assurances that will be my job.”
Scott told The Baltimore Banner previously that hiring Barksdale was “not a decision that I came to lightly, but which I made because this is someone that I believe in and someone that I know and trust, who has a heart for Baltimore and wants it to be the safest city it can be.”
The mayor said his office spent months searching for the right person for the job.
“I wanted it to be someone with a proven track record on public safety and with a deep knowledge in our city,” Scott said at the news conference. “[Barksdale] knows that zero tolerance and stop-and-frisk policies of the past won’t produce a sustainable outcome for all Baltimoreans.”
Referring to himself, Barksdale and Harrison, Scott said in the prior interview: “We are three black men that live in Baltimore that want Baltimore to be better. And we are willing to put any differences in things that happened in the past to make our city a better place.”
Barksdale said he has “no intentions” of trying to run the Police Department, but looked forward to bringing his experience to “help support this team to win.” Addressing previous comments, he said he now believes crime can be reduced under the consent decree.
“I was an outsider looking in when I made prior comments,” he told reporters Friday. “You have to understand, I come from a time when we went under 200 homicides and I get upset ... I acted irrationally, and I apologize to the commissioner and anyone else I may have offended.”
Scott took office in 2021 and has sought to change the city’s approach to crime using a public health lens. This year, the city recorded the most-ever homicides for the first six months of a year, with 179 killings. A poll conducted by Goucher College for The Baltimore Banner showed 90% of residents said crime was a major issue, and respondents expressed a desire to implement a number of potential solutions, including harsher sentencing, more patrols and increasing the police budget.
As deputy mayor, Barksdale’s responsibilities will go beyond policing to include firefighting and the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, which oversees programs like Safe Streets.
Barksdale was born and raised in West Baltimore. Early in his career, he was part of Commissioner Ed Norris’ security detail and said he learned about the fundamentals of policing from Jack Maple, the New York police officer who created that city’s Compstat data analysis program, which then-Mayor Martin O’Malley brought to Baltimore.
Before a becoming a cable news commentator, Barksdale had almost no public profile in his five years as the No. 2 commander. Instead, he was an Oz-like presence, booming at commanders behind closed doors.
During his tenure the “successes were undeniable — the number of homicides dropped to levels that had not been achieved in decades, as did the number of non-fatal shootings. At the same time, the shift in strategy from zero-tolerance to focus on the most violent offenders substantially reduced the number of arrests by BPD,” remarked the law firm that investigated the Gun Trace Task Force scandal for the Police Department.
“In addition to his substantial accomplishments, that legacy includes serving as chief implementer of a harsh, numbers-driven version of Comstat,” Michael Bromwich, who led the outside investigation, told The Banner in an interview. “He believed in plainclothes units with broad discretion ... In addition, at times Barksdale struggled to play well with others.”
Barksdale told Bromwich that a tough approach at Comstat was necessary. “It doesn’t work when you’re weak,” Barksdale said, according to the report. “It can be nasty in that room, but there has to be accountability.”
Barksdale was instrumental in creating the Violent Crime Impact Division, a beefed-up version of the plainclothes units that were praised by police during their time for cracking down on crime in historically violent neighborhoods, and later lamented for how it too often achieved those results — through unconstitutional policing.
Barksdale has said he did not know of such abuses and worked to hold officers accountable when he became aware.
“I had complaints in my career. But the thing is, I was doing the job. And sometimes if you’re a good cop, some of these organizations will pay people to make complaints on you,” he told The Baltimore Sun in 2019. “That’s why the internal affairs process is so crucial. You trust the internal process.”
Barksdale jockeyed to become commissioner following the retirement of Frederick H. Bealefeld III, but was passed over for Anthony Batts and went on medical leave for heart and stress issues, eventually retiring in 2014.
Former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake told the GTTF investigators that she had confidence in Barksdale as commissioner, but that during the selection process he performed poorly and was “unable to demonstrate that he would be ‘cool, calm, and collected’ as commissioner.”
Barksdale told the GTTF investigators that he couldn’t work with Batts because Barksdale “saw himself as an alpha male who did not want to relinquish the operational autonomy he had enjoyed under Bealefeld.”
Barksdale’s name was floated in 2018 to lead the Mayor’s Office on Criminal Justice under then-Mayor Catherine Pugh. Then-Councilman Scott called Barksdale at that time “one of the smartest crime-fighting minds that I know.” Barksdale did not end up taking the post.
In 2020, Barksdale was interviewed by Fox45 and 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.”
“Commissioner Harrison and his Kentucky Deputy of Operations [former Louisville Police Deputy Chief Michael Sullivan, who is now overseeing the BPD’s consent decree compliance bureau] are leaving citizens and officers vulnerable,” he tweeted in 2020, referring to orders Harrison issued early in the pandemic. “Absolutely idiotic and reason to remove him and his entire team!”
In September 2018, Barksdale tweeted: “Things were supposed to get better under the consent decree, right? Wrong!”
In an Op-Ed that ran in February 2021, Barksdale said more needs to be done to protect Black communities experiencing violence.
“The vast majority of victims of violence in Baltimore and other cities are Black and Brown children, women, and men,” he wrote. “While I understand the sentiment behind those who wish to move away from policing, we need to maintain focus on the suffering, and loss happening right now in these neighborhoods. Police play a vital role in protecting the vulnerable within them.”
He continued: “I believe in using data to make crime fighting decisions. The data is screaming for more to be done across the United States to keep black and brown communities safe. We must have the courage to confront the daily violence Black and Brown citizens are facing with targeted and proactive engagement against the shooters and killers. We cannot afford to wait, we must turn this around.”
Reporter Tim Prudente contributed to this article.