Baltimore's state senators pressed police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts on Thursday to address city residents' fears in the aftermath of the spate of killings that started the year. Batts tried to assure them that he was "just as upset as you are" and that "we're going to respond."
During the meeting in Annapolis with the city's six senators, all Democrats, Batts said he has been reorganizing the Police Department since his arrival in 2012 and that, with the exception of homicides and auto thefts, crime is significantly lower overall in the city than it has been historically.
But the elected officials pointedly told the commissioner that their constituents don't feel safer.
"I think we're living in two different worlds," said Sen. Bill Ferguson, who represents Southeast, Southwest and Southern Baltimore. He ticked off a list of killings and other violent crimes that had occurred in his district, concluding with the armed robbery of a 12-year-old girl last week as she walked to school near Patterson Park.
"We had 27 people killed in our city in January," Ferguson added. "It's an enormous problem. Residents in my district are voting with their feet."
Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, whose district includes parts of East and Northeast Baltimore, acknowledged that crime statistics indicate the city is safer in most respects.
Still, he said, "people just feel that they're not safe." He urged Batts to visit more neighborhoods and "get on top of that homicide rate."
"There's a perception of a serious crime problem, and you are our leader," he said.
As of Thursday, the city has had 29 homicides, the latest a 35-year-old woman whose body was found behind an abandoned home in Northwest Baltimore this week. There were 19 killings by the same date last year.
Batts sought to reassure the officials that, with the exception of a 20 percent jump in car thefts, virtually all types of crime have declined in the past year, some dramatically so.
Violent crimes are down by 34 percent over the previous year, he said.
"We're going in the right direction." He said data shows much of the violence is related to drugs and gangs, and not random.
But he acknowledged that homicides are up — and a serious problem.
"I understand. I get it," Batts said. "We're going to respond. … It's going to shift, it's going to change."
Batts said he's been replacing and reassigning command staff and working to carry out the recommendations in a strategic plan prepared by an outside consultant.
"I'm going to stick with what I know works," he said. "We're going to stay with the plan, and we're not going to vacillate back and forth with what we're doing."
After Batts explained how he had focused police presence downtown and in the city's entertainment districts, Sen. Joan Carter Conway said residents in her North Baltimore district perceive a declining police presence in their neighborhoods and worry about their safety.
Batts said one problem he hadn't anticipated as he reorganized was a surge in officers leaving the department last year that he said hampered his ability to flood problem areas. He said he's working now to get ahead of the turnover by trying to increase police cadet classes from 40 to 80.
"We don't have the bodies," he said, "and we've got to cure attrition."
He asked for lawmakers' help in one area.
He recounted how a violent incident at a club resulted in a series of retaliatory shootings in the following weeks. He said he wants the legal authority to move more quickly to padlock clubs where violence breaks out.
Batts said he doesn't want to shut down many clubs but believes the threat of being closed would motivate owners to tighten security at their establishments.
Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, whose district covers a swath of West Baltimore, urged Batts to go after drug activity in Pigtown.
"I've never seen so many drug traffickers,'' she said. It's "out of control."
Pugh said City Hall also can help fight crime by putting in more streetlights.
"It's too dark," she said. "We need to light the city up."
Sen. Verna L. Jones-Rodwell, who represents a slice of West Baltimore, said the city needs a "comprehensive approach" to fighting crime that addresses all the related issues, including public perceptions.
"We can't keep looking at it," Ferguson said. "We've got to act. It has to be now because things are not going in the right direction.
"If it doesn't change quickly, we're in a lot of trouble."
Batts said he shared the senators' sense of urgency.
"We're not waiting at all," he said. "I'm already moving on these things. I hear your frustration."
Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.
A previous version of this story contained a photograph caption with incorrect information about city crime trends.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun