Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts offered an open hand to the LGBT community at a hate-crime forum in Mount Vernon on Thursday night, saying he wants to stand "shoulder-to-shoulder" with community members to improve officers' interactions with them on the ground.
"We're here to be open, we're here to engage, we're here to be part of the community -- all parts of the community," Batts said.
The event, held at the Waxter Center as part of this week's Baltimore Black Pride celebration, drew a small crowd -- organizers said the rain probably kept some away -- but had a large presence from the police department, with the department's top brass heavily represented.
Also in attendance were members of the department's new LGBT advisory council, which also sponsored the event, including its two chairs, Free State Legal's executive director Aaron Merki and Alvin Gillard, director of the city's Office of Civil Rights; Carrie Evans, executive director of Equality Maryland; Demetrius Mallisham, liaison from the office of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake; Lt. Eric Kowalczyk, of the police department; and Carlton Smith, president of Baltimore Black Pride.
Batts started the forum by talking about his history in multiple departments in California, where he served as a liaison to the LGBT community as a young officer and later was the first police chief of Long Beach to ride in a Gay Pride parade.
He also spoke of growing up with a gay uncle who was like a father to him.
His point, he said, was that interacting with the LGBT community is "nothing new to me, it doesn't throw me off."
Following the beating earlier this year of Kenni Shaw, a gay East Baltimore man, Batts promised an increased focus on improving relations between police and the city's LGBT community. Part of making good on that promise was his creation of the advisory council, he said.
Shaw had suggested the beating may have been hate-based. At Thursday's forum, Batts said police "still don't know" if there was bias in Shaw's attack -- a hate-crime charge was never filed -- but the department is working to make sure officers are aware of what to look for, and what to write into police reports, when a hate-crime is alleged or suspected.
He said he has also been stressing to officers in the department that their biases can't show in their work on Baltimore's streets, and has taken a fresh perspective on recruitment.
Instead of "trying to change" biased officers' values after they are hired, he said, "why don't we start looking for the people who have the right value system as they're coming in?"
Cristie Cole, a member of the audience who works as an operations research analyst in the office of Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein, praised Batts for his openness, but asked how it would extend through the department.
"It is very easy to change policy, but very difficult to change culture," Cole said, noting she has heard "hateful things" come out of the mouths of some officers.
Batts said he has heard similar complaints in neighborhoods across the city.
"The way we speak to people period is terrible, and we have a long way to go," he said. "Your bias can't enter into how you do your job."
The Rev. Meredith Moise, also in the crowd, said she has witnessed young black lesbians in the Mt. Vernon area, especially those who present as "masculine," being profiled and harassed by officers, and she wanted to know what the proper process is to report such offenses.
"I'm not anti-police, but I am for good police officers," Moise said. "I want to help young people follow good policy and procedure so they don't grow up hating cops."
After Batts gave a quick response, Deputy Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez walked Moise through the correct procedures for people who feel profiled or harassed, including asking for the officer's name, requesting a supervisor respond to the scene and taking the complaint to internal affairs.
Later in the meeting, Evans, of Equality Maryland, asked Maj. Sabrina Tapp-Harper, who oversees special investigations, about officers misjudging domestic violence situations between same-sex couples.
Evans said often, officers untrained to handle such situations fail to identify the aggressor, and instead end up arresting both parties. "It's an issue," she said.
Tapp-Harper said the department is constantly watching for best practices in training and updating its procedures to deal with modern situations.
The conversation also veered away from LGBT issues and touched on broader crimes.
When asked about the arson at Da Vinci's Market and Bistro in the 800 block of Park Ave. in Mount Vernon in July, in which two men were killed, Batts said the department has "very strong leads that we believe in," but declined to provide more information other than to say that the incident was isolated.
When asked about the department's relatively recent "Public Enemy No. 1" campaign, in which the department has singled out particularly dangerous criminals, Batts said the program has been a huge success in terms of intelligence gathering.
"We started getting calls in by the droves," he said, a response he said flies in the face of the "mythology" of an anti-snitching culture in Baltimore.
During the forum, police also handed out an information sheet showing crime statistics, including one showing a six percent decline in violent crime in the city this year, compared to last.
Batts said while city residents, the media and "my boss'" focus is on the homicide count -- an apparent reference to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake -- his is on the broader picture.
When asked about transgender women being harrassed in the Baltimore City Detention Center, Batts said it's something he can talk about with Gary Maynard, the state's corrections secretary, as the state runs the jail.
After the meeting, Batts said the low turnout might be an indication that the department already has "good communication" with the gay community. If it was the rain, or a lack of awareness, he said, he'd be happy to return -- next time with the officers who work the neighborhood, so they can hear the complaints first hand.
Smith, of Baltimore Black Pride, said he felt the forum went well, but he hopes to arrange another meeting between police and younger black LGBT city residents.
"They are who we see out in the community who don't have this information," he said, and who are being profiled and harrassed the most.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun