After high school, he enrolled in Santa Monica College and then California State's Long Beach campus, and had designs on becoming an attorney. During that time, he mentored at-risk youths, and said the death of a boy he was working with was the transformative moment that convinced him to become a police officer. Though he offers up this personal story and others, he is also guarded on details, declining to identify the boy or discuss the circumstances of his death.
Instead of studying to become an attorney, he signed on with the Long Beach Police Department, where he would rocket through the ranks to become chief — a post he held for seven years, beyond the usual tenure for police administrators.
A port city about 30 minutes south of Los Angeles, Long Beach has about 465,000 residents and is a convention destination with expensive beachfront homes, though it's also largely working-class and has a median income 16 percent below the California average, according to U.S Census data.
During the crack cocaine boom that saw violence explode across the country, Long Beach struggled with a jump in crime as well as complaints of excessive force. In 1992, the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles also spread to Long Beach — one person was killed, 360 were injured, and mobs caused $20 million worth of damage.
The city was already dissatisfied with its police department and at one point had nearly dissolved the force entirely. In a compromise, the city arranged for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department to patrol a portion of the city.
Once dubbed "Iowa by the Sea" due to a heavy presence of Midwesterners, the city's demographics changed dramatically, with a sharp rise in the number of blacks, Latinos and Cambodians. Long Beach is said to have the largest population of Cambodians outside that country, and in 2000 the city was named by USA Today as the "Most Ethnically Diverse" in the United States.
Batts held various assignments throughout the agency but continued to follow his mother's guidance about the importance of education. He earned a master's degree in business, and later became the youngest commander in the agency's history.
He completed a doctorate in public administration in 1998 from nearby University of La Verne, with a dissertation on police use of force. He became a father, having three children, two of them through a marriage that ended in divorce.
Early on, Batts began to build community ties that would pay off. In 1994 he was selected to participate in a program called "Leadership Long Beach," where he helped push the idea of midnight basketball games to keep youths off the street. He was also forging relationships with local clergy, bonds that would be crucial when the department faced trying times.
"He was a tremendous role model to young men," said former City Councilwoman Tonia Reyes Uranga. "I'd like him to come back and run for mayor."
Robert Luna, now deputy chief of patrol for the Long Beach Police Department, remembers talking shop with Batts as they pumped iron in the weight room.
"The question you always have to ask yourself is, and Tony Batts taught me this: What kind of a relationship have you built with your community?" Luna said in an interview. "They cannot have their police leadership only come out when bad things happen. You have to put credits into the bank so that when you speak, people know you, they trust you, and they know where your heart's at."
Luna drives his unmarked sedan through a territory he says is controlled by the East Side Longo gang, then pulls up to an alley where he recalls a controversial police shooting taking place. The victim turned out to be unarmed, but police phoned community leaders to bring them close to the crime scene and tell them what had happened. If they were upfront and frank, Luna said, they could mitigate the outrage.
Batts married a second time, in 1997, to Laura Richardson. She would later become a city councilwoman, and their relationship lasted for four and a half years, with the couple separating just months before Batts was sworn in as chief. Richardson, who dropped "Batts" from her name that week, would go on to win a seat in Congress, which she is fighting to retain in this fall's election after being reprimanded on the House floor for ethics issues.
'That man is intense'
Batts, with his parents at his side, became the youngest chief in Long Beach history at 42. "To those who would shoot, beat, stab and take advantage of the weak, a message: We're coming," Batts said at his swearing-in.
As chief, Batts gained a reputation as transparent and communicative to the public, while doing ride-alongs to talk to officers about their concerns and ideas. As part of one initiative, officers were directed to visit church services on Sundays as a way to strengthen police relationships in the community.
With budgets tight, he worked to eliminate redundancies: gang squads were investigating gang members dealing drugs, while drug squads were investigating drug dealers who were gang members. He slimmed them into one "major crime" unit, connected to patrol.