Davis takeover offers break in Baltimore's season of pessimism

Davis stood in for Baltimore police chief at news conference, radio interview

At noon on Tuesday, in a sudden break from the pessimism that has been as pervasive as the spring-summer rains, I allowed myself to feel some promise for Baltimore in the presence of a fellow in a brown suit named Kevin Davis. He sat for an hourlong interview on my radio show, answered questions and spoke openly about the Baltimore Police Department's need to restore trust with citizens in order to stop the killings.

Bright, congenial, conversant in the major issues, a fourth-generation cop who rose through the ranks in Prince George's County, served as chief in Anne Arundel County and took a job as deputy commissioner in Baltimore just seven months ago, Davis spoke candidly, without notes, about the issues that have arisen in the last 21/2 months in my beleaguered city — "hold the line" versus "stand down," the lootings of pharmacies, the surge in shootings and homicides, the drop in arrests.

He said the BPD was not fully prepared for the riot on the day of Freddie Gray's funeral and needed more help from other police departments in the region. That wasn't exactly hot news; Davis echoed many of the things Police Commissioner Anthony Batts had been saying at damage-control news conferences and in interviews since April. But Davis expressed them in a clear way that seemed fresh and credible.

Of course, it was odd that Davis, and not Batts, had appeared at WYPR for the interview. And the offer of Davis as a guest had been made early last week. "DC Davis has expressed interest in doing an interview on Midday to discuss police reforms within the Baltimore Police Department," said the note from Lt. Sarah E. Connolly of the department's media relations section.

Batts had been a guest on the show several times since Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake appointed him to replace the effective police commissioner she lost in 2012, Fred Bealefeld. But I didn't ask why Batts could not appear. I figured he had delegated some responsibility to Davis, an experienced commander he had hired in January. I thought likewise when Davis took the lead in a news conference Monday to promote recent arrests in shootings and in the stabbing death of a teenager.

But by Tuesday, clearly something was up.

So it's possible that what the mayor says is true — that dumping Batts was in the interest of public safety and not in direct reaction to Wednesday's scathing after-action report from the Fraternal Order of Police about the downtown disturbance of April 25 and the riot of April 27. It's possible that she had been planning to make a change since last week and that the offer of Davis as a guest on "Midday" was a way of getting him in front of the public.

Still, it's hard to see how the deliberative Rawlings-Blake could take any longer than a minute to fire Batts once the FOP quoted the heavy-handed phrase, "led us officers to slaughter," in its harsh review of Batt's handling of the riot.

Plus, there was the embarrassing, infuriating and depressing story of Connor Meek, the mugging victim who discovered that police districts were closed from 7 p.m. until 7 a.m., then wrote an opinion piece in The Baltimore Sun about it.

And there was the weekend news report of the phrase "Enjoy your ride, 'cuz we sure will" on the inside of a police van like the one in which Gray sustained his fatal injuries.

Rawlings-Blake once said she would "rather be thoughtful and right than fast and wrong" about outfitting Baltimore cops with body cameras, and she's been stung by criticism that the project could take as long as four years to fully implement.

So she wasn't about to go another four days with Batts when it isn't clear that Baltimore will go another four years with her.

Remember, it was only last week that Sheila Dixon, the former mayor, let everyone know she's going to challenge the incumbent for that office in next spring's Democratic primary.

Put that all together, and you have a suddenly decisive Rawlings-Blake.

I add one other thing, and its place in this sequence of events should not be construed as a judgment of its relevance to the mayor's decision: Four people were shot a few blocks west of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and the University of Maryland's Baltimore campus late Tuesday night, and three of them died.

The next morning, I received this email from a guy named Dave, who asked me not to use his full name: "My wife has worked at University of Maryland hospital downtown for 10 years as a nurse and she is thinking of leaving because she does not feel safe. She will go to work at Greater Baltimore Medical Center or Carroll County Hospital for much less pay, but it is worth it not to be afraid. She is fed up."

If that's what the mayor was responding to in getting Batts out and moving Davis up, then good. I'll take it.

drodricks@baltsun.com

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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