Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts announced Thursday a broad reshuffling of the agency's command staff, with new leadership for four patrol districts and the homicide unit, as well as the creation of units focused on community relations and gangs.
The moves are the most significant yet under Batts, who took over in the fall and asked all commanders to reapply for their jobs. The changes will make the agency “effective, bold, and fast-moving,” while focusing on greater community involvement and intelligence-gathering, which can go hand-in-hand, he said in an interview.
“We are putting the people and systems in place to help improve our crime fight and that includes better management of our resources, community engagement, and a continued and targeted focus on guns and gangs — that small group of criminals who wreak havoc on our communities,” Batts said in a statement that accompanied the announcement.
The changes include the promotion of Maj. Melvin Russell, commander of the Eastern District, to lieutenant colonel to oversee a new “community policing division” in which he will work with churches, businesses and former inmates re-entering society.
“Leadership is only effective through partnership,” Russell said.
City Councilman Brandon Scott, vice chair of the council’s public safety committee, applauded Batts’ moves. “Overall, I think it’s great that we’re seeing people move up through the ranks,” he said.
Robert F. Cherry, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, the city police union, said the agency was “due” for personnel changes, but said additional operational adjustments are needed for the city to make progress.
“Although the promotions are garnering the attention now, the key to policing our city is [that] the overall strategy … needs tweaking from [former Commissioner Frederick] Bealefeld’s strategy,” Cherry said in an email. “The FOP is pushing for greater emphasis and resources in patrol and in all neighborhoods of the city, not just the violent neighborhoods.”
Taking Russell’s place in the Eastern, the city district with the most homicides and shootings, is Keith Matthews, a 30-year veteran who has worked in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission office and internal affairs. Batts said Matthews has a “rich history” with the agency and called him a “stabilizing force.”
Taking over the Central District — one of the most challenging districts because it includes the downtown and Inner Harbor area but also high-crime areas such as Pennsylvania Avenue — is Maj. Melissa Hyatt, who was previously second-in-command in the Southeastern District and is considered a rising star in the agency. Hyatt, a 15-year veteran of the department, is the first female commander of the district, officials said.
The homicide division will get new leadership with Capt. Stanley Brandford, a 22-year veteran of the agency. Col. Garnell Green, who has overseen the unit for the past year, will move to lead the patrol division, with Col. Dean Palmere taking control of criminal investigations.
Some of the leadership changes were necessitated by the recent retirement of two high-ranking commanders.
Missing from the department's new organizational chart is the Violent Crimes Impact Section, which the previous administration promoted as the force behind the city's recent declines in gun violence. The group has come under criticism from City Council members, who say the plainclothes officers — who work areas that historically have the highest crime rates — are the source of the most citizen complaints.
The unit appears to have been largely rebranded — the latest of several different incarnations over the years — and will now be known as the “Special Enforcement” section. It will fall under the patrol division.
VCIS units are now deployed in hot spots in East, West, Northwest and Northeast Baltimore. Batts said the zones will be “tightened up” but that the charge of the unit would not change.
“The process works well,” he said. “We’re not going to mess with it except have it work closer with patrol majors.”
Cherry said the VCIS unit needs more than a rebranding. He noted that police in Washington . recently shut down some of their specialized units and transferred those members back to patrol as crime patterns changed there. “We need to do the same here,” Cherry said.
Batts stressed that the agency’s focus will be on building ties with the community. In his new role, Russell hopes to replicate community-building programs that he said helped drive down crime in the Eastern District.
Russell, who is also an assistant pastor, began urging business owners who complained about robberies and burglaries to sponsor youth baseball and football teams. Soon, he said, drug dealers whose little brothers were on a team would urge their peers not to harm those businesses — because even they saw the community benefit the businesses were providing.