The Tests Of True Leadership

If we can all agree on something about the situation in Baltimore, it’s that the City is in desperate need of strong leadership. The Mayor of Baltimore is Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. The Mayor took office in 2010 when her predecessor announced her conviction for embezzlement, and successfully ran for a full term in 2011, winning 52% of the vote in the Democratic primary (which is the only real election in Baltimore).

Rawlings-Blake largely stayed in the background as the Freddie Gray investigation unfolded, but gained some national notoriety for herself by commenting about the riots, “It’s a very delicate balancing act. Because while we try to make sure that they were protected from the cars and other things that were going on, we also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well.” The Mayor later indicated that the phrase “we also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well” was taken out of context and/or misinterpreted.

Since the riots, things have gotten terrible in Baltimore. Baltimore recorded 43 fatal and more than 100 non-fatal shootings in May, making it the second deadliest month in the City’s history. No one knows where the June numbers are heading, but they don’t look good. No one seems to dispute that the looting of pharmacies during the riots resulted in massive amounts of stolen pharmaceuticals being openly traded on the streets.

There’s also no question but that officers are taking less enforcement action as a result of what has occurred. Officers arrested fewer people in May than in any month over the last three years, and there’s uniform agreement that morale in the police department couldn’t be lower. The Mayor accuses the FOP of choreographing a work slowdown. The FOP responds that officers are simply being more careful in the wake of the Gray indictments, which they view as confusing and unjustified, and because 160 of their fellow officers were injured in the riots.

All of that is backdrop. What caught my eye today were three stories about Rawlings-Gray. All set me to thinking about how precious good leadership is, particularly in a time of crisis.

The first story was Rawlings-Blake telling the press that “she has told the Fraternal Order of Police — the police union — that officers need to do their jobs or face internal discipline. We know there are some officers who we have some concerns about. I’ve been very clear with the FOP that their officers, as long as they plan to cash their paycheck, my expectation is that they work.” I had two visceral reactions to this story: (1) If the Mayor really said something like that to the FOP, she should have kept the conversation confidential. By publicizing the conversation, she did nothing but wave a red flag in front of a bull; and (2) Somewhere, sometime, it may have worked for a politician to achieve results by publicly threatening cops. I just haven’t see it in 35 years of representing police unions.

The second story highlighted the City’s failure to respond to the FOP’s requests for communications between City Hall and the Police Department leading up to and including the riots. You’d think this one would be a no-brainer. The communications are almost certainly public records, so the City will have to turn them over sooner or later. Why not give them to the FOP, if only as an attempt at rapproachement? The FOP now accuses the City of stonewalling the request; the Mayor responds that the records cannot be turned over because the City is extensively reviewing them, but then proceeds to express the conclusions she has drawn from the records she is not releasing.

The third story is that Mayor Rawlings-Blake is headed to San Francisco this weekend. Not a vacation; she’s going to assume the mantle of the president of the U.S. Council of Mayors. I’ll borrow from Ecclesiastes 3, “to every thing there is a season.” And, investiture or not, this just doesn’t seem to be the time to fly to San Francisco to pick up an award nor, quite frankly, does it seem to be the time to appointing her president of anything. Her city is burning, for goodness sakes, figuratively and at times literally.

Here’s hoping Rawlings-Blake returns to Baltimore invigorated and blessed with an effective communication strategy, one that doesn’t publicly pit her against her police officers. Baltimore needs to begin what will be a long, long period of healing, and it needs to be led in that healing by its mayor.