On July 17, 2023, Mayor Brandon Scott announced he was nominating Richard Worley as Baltimore City’s next police commissioner. If confirmed by the city council, Worley will replace Commissioner Michael Harrison, who in June announced he would be leaving the Baltimore City Police Department (BPD) after more than four years in charge. 

This story also appeared in Baltimore Courtwatch

Worley has spent 25 years as a member of the BPD. He began his career as a patrol cop in the Western District before moving up the ranks. He oversaw the Northeast District from 2012 to 2016 and has been in upper command since 2018.

A hearing on Worley’s nomination in the City Council’s Rules and Legislative Oversight Committee, previously scheduled for Aug. 15, was canceled to allow time for a series of meetings where Scott and Worley could hear from the public. It was rescheduled for Sept. 21 at 5:00 p.m. The Baltimore Banner also reported that Judge James K. Bredar — the judge overseeing the consent decree process — approved of Worley’s nomination during an Aug. 24 quarterly consent decree hearing. 

The public relations junket for Worley follows the typical pattern for incoming commissioners since at least 2017.

Following the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, the Department of Justice launched an investigation into the city’s police department which found that they had engaged in “in a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the Constitution or federal law.” That included: excessive force, unconstitutional stops, and retaliation. Baltimore entered into the consent decree, which is aimed at addressing those issues, in 2017. 

Since then, politicians have promised that they will be the one(s) to usher in a new era of public safety. However, this summer, with Scott touting curfews for teenagers, State’s Attorney Ivan Bates returning to broken windows policing and Worley’s nomination signals that local leaders are done even pretending to “reform” the mass incarceration machine.

The public relations junket for Worley follows the typical pattern for incoming commissioners since at least 2017. A coronation tour focuses on the hope of new leadership, with politicians  vowing to listen to community concerns, professing their care for those communities but giving few details about concrete changes they believe will create the safety all agree is needed. Little to no serious pushback or vetting for commissioners occurs, while the Baltimore City Council and media almost uniformly rubber stamp the nominee. 

This coronation is typically followed by the most frustrating dynamic in Baltimore politics. The promises made prior to assuming office are followed by an insistence that the most powerful officials are powerless to do what communities demand when they are in office — even if they already promised it.

We know Worley oversaw the Northeast District when Tyrone West was brutally beaten to death by his officers.

Scott, for example, campaigned against allowing a Johns Hopkins University private police force. But since assuming office in December 2020, he has helped with plans for the private police force to move forward, while strongly implying that state law has tied his hands. In fact, the bill passed by the state legislature and signed by then-Gov. Larry Hogan in 2019 (prior to Scott’s campaign promises) allows but does not require a JHU private police force. Former police commissioner Harrison signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that has been challenged in the courts by local residents and is currently being appealed. Scott could publicly and forcefully speak out against the MOU and nominate a commissioner who would reject and withdraw from the MOU. He made the choice not to.

Can we expect the same from Worley? His history of refusing responsibility suggests yes.

We know Worley oversaw the Northeast District when Tyrone West was brutally beaten to death by his officers. The officers responsible for the initial stop and for beginning the violence — Nicholas David Chapman and Jorge Omar Bernandez-Ruiz — racked up complaints under Worley’s leadership. This includes the case of Abdul Salaam, who was pulled from his car and beaten by Chapman and Bernardez-Ruiz days before they killed Tyrone West. Chapman was found guilty of assault and false imprisonment, while Bernardez-Ruiz was found not guilty of assault and guilty of false imprisonment in March 2016.

When questioned about this in recent public meetings, Worley claimed to be powerless to review the case. During the recent Brooklyn Day shooting, Worley was acting commissioner. His initial response was that BPD and he were “unaware” of the popular event and any potential trouble. When it became apparent that the community alerted BPD to potential issues hours before the shooting, he countered that the department needs more technology and power to more oppressively surveil. 

The same leadership never wants for power when furthering mass incarceration is on the agenda. When business leaders demanded a larger police presence in Fells Point, there was no red tape or no shortage of patrol cops. When Bates wanted to create a new docket for low-level citations, no one was powerless to help enact that plan. When the Downtown Partnership demanded squeegee kids and unhoused community members be removed from downtown business intersections, there was no lack of power.

However, when thousands demand justice for Tyrone West, or that Johns Hopkins University be denied an armed private police force with immense and unaccountable power,  suddenly, powerful hands are tied and nothing can be done.

Beyond the case of Tyrone West, Worley was in leadership positions both when the Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF) operated with impunity and when it was recently reformed and renamed District Action Teams. GTTF was also the inspiration for the HBO limited series, “We Own This City.” 

As Worley’s nomination moves forward, we are left with a slew of questions. Is it credible to believe that someone who spent 25 years in a police department notorious for extreme violence and consistently violating the rights of Black Baltimoreans did not participate in or observe any of that violence? Why did he not whistleblow on any wrongdoing at all while scandals abounded? If he did, where are the Internal Affairs reports on it? 

According to him, what powers does he have, and what powers can the city council exercise under local control? Will he blame residents for not “cooperating” with police for his failures? And, most importantly, why should anyone believe policing can solve any of the problems of public safety when they have not for decades? 

And while the new commissioner strives to convince the public that he will oversee mild “reforms,” we know that even if they succeed by his measure, they fail to address public safety, police brutality, justice or any of the public’s true concerns. This continues to leave anyone who wants a true public safety agenda in the position of needing to look outside BPD and the current punitive justice system entirely. The call to defund and abolish BPD is not a fantasy, but the only realistic path to a liberatory future.