Baltimore City Council seized its first opportunity to grill acting Police Commissioner Richard Worley at a marathon hearing Thursday night, demanding accountability and change from the top cop who still needs its approval to permanently enter the office.
The council asked heated questions about the mass shooting in Brooklyn on July 2 that left two dead and 28 injured. “This is not a performance. This is not normal council operations. This is a measure of complete accountability on public record,” said City Councilwoman Phylicia Porter, who represents the neighborhood where the annual block party at a public housing complex turned deadly.
Worley was contrite in his opening remarks, saying he lived in Brooklyn for more than a decade and the police department deeply failed by not preparing for the annual event that has been held for 27 years and typically draws hundreds of attendees.
Initially, police believed the shooting was caused “mostly by breakdown of intelligence gathering,” he said. “But there was even greater breakdown of communication and judgment.”
Worley’s first appearance before the council comes weeks after Mayor Brandon Scott hastily chose the BPD veteran to replace former commissioner Michael Harrison without interviewing other candidates. Worley learned of his promotion in an 11 p.m. phone call the night before the June 8 press conference where the mayor publicly announced Harrison’s resignation.
Worley still needs the council’s stamp of approval
Under Baltimore’s strong mayor system, council members have relatively little power compared to the chief executive, who has broad oversight over the budget, the city’s spending panel and city agencies.
But the council has the power to approve or deny Scott’s nominees for top City Hall positions — an authority the council was unafraid to flex at the initial confirmation for City Administrator Faith Leach, whose appointment was first voted down. After Scott and his senior aides dedicated a weekend to whipping votes, Leach was confirmed in a subsequent vote.
In the days after Scott tapped Worley as acting commissioner, councilmembers were broadly supportive, calling him a sharp veteran of the agency who knows the rank and file well.
The police department is due to issue a more detailed incident report within 45 days of the shooting. Many councilmembers said they are eager to read it. The earliest Worley’s nomination could appear before the council is Monday, July 17; the following council meeting is not until mid-August because the body is on a summer recess.
Even before the Brooklyn shooting, councilmembers said they planned to ask Worley tough questions during his confirmation hearing. It’s unclear what impact BPD’s failures in communication will have on the process.
Power of the soapbox
In recent weeks, a pointed remark by a councilmember at a public hearing has come into the spotlight — demonstrating the influence and soft power that members can wield with a well-timed salvo. Harrison informed Scott on May 13 that he would be stepping down, but his decision was not made public until June 8, two days after Councilman Eric Costello pointedly asked Harrison at a BPD budget hearing whether he intended to fulfill the rest of his contract, which ran through 2024 but allowed him to resign with 90 days’ written notice.
On Thursday night, councilmembers used their stage at the Public Safety Committee hearing to drill public safety, housing and transportation officials with heated questions critical of the Scott administration. Every member of the body was in attendance besides Councilman Ryan Dorsey. The council, which consists entirely of Democrats with a range of political opinions about the best way to deter crime and how police should operate, was generally united in its frustration that BPD was seemingly unaware of the event.
After multiple councilmembers said BPD would never allow an 800-person event in neighborhoods such as Fells Point or Federal Hill without additional police presence, Worley said the agency tends to be heavily deployed to those areas and less in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods such as Brooklyn. Affluent communities, he said, are more likely to complain about a lack of police presence and request additional resources.
City Council President Nick Mosby replied that the government’s role is “not to provide oil to [the] squeakiest wheel.”
Porter closed her remarks by condemning the presentations offered by agency leaders across City Hall, saying she learned no new information throughout the hourslong hearing. “I’m deeply disappointed and frustrated,” she said.
Costello said the only new piece of information he learned was that Foxtrot, BPD’s helicopter, was deployed for a fireworks complaint near the block party that night. “The intention of tonight’s hearing was to talk about what happened and why it happened and what needs to happen to fix that,” he said. “I’m failing to understand how we’re meeting the intention of that purpose this evening.”
Costello managed another dig at Harrison when he thanked Worley for his “brutal honesty” in admitting the department erred, saying his predecessor would not have done the same.
Tough questions for MONSE’s interim director
The hearing marked another first appearance of a new, temporary official: Stefanie Mavronis, the interim director of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, who was tapped by Scott days before the shooting after former director Shantay Jackson resigned.
Several councilmembers, including Antonio Glover, who represents East Baltimore, and Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, who represents Northwest Baltimore, criticized the public safety office’s efficacy. Councilmembers asked Mavronis repeatedly about Safe Streets; the Brooklyn chapter of the violence interruption group is run by Catholic Charities, with input from MONSE.
The group employs community members to quell beefs before they erupt into violence. Its members do not carry weapons, and their role is not to call police. Mavronis said Safe Streets intervened in five incidents near the scene of the shooting the night it occurred, none of which involved firearms — though social media videos from the Brooklyn Day event showed at least one person flashing a gun and an early investigation found casings from more than a dozen weapons at the scene.
At times, Mavronis called on Catholic Charities official Kevin Keegan to answer specific questions about Safe Streets’ operations, much to the chagrin of Schleifer, who criticized the Scott administration’s violence intervention approach.
Mosby delivered a closing remark that put him in lockstep with the Scott administration, deviating from a recent pattern of criticism toward the mayor.
“In order for them to be credible messengers, they can’t be seen as folks who are also talking to our police department,” he said of Safe Streets. “As hard as it is to wrap our head around that, that is just the reality.”