Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts claimed Thursday that the agency's decision to stop notifying citizens of reported shootings over Twitter was never official policy and he would have vetoed it if it had been brought to him.
Speaking at an LGBT forum, The Sun's Kevin Rector reports that Batts said the idea came from someone "lower down in the organization" who was concerned, like he is, about incorrect information going out over Twitter in the first minutes after a shooting.
"What comes out in the first 4 or 5 minutes of an incident is usually wrong. About 40 to 50 percent of it is wrong," he said. Detectives gather information quickly, but their investigations often reveal a different truth, Batts said.
Batts' comments on Thursday don't acknowledge the statements made by his chief spokesman and his chief of staff that the decision was based on the presumed motives for the shootings and the criminal histories or lifestyles of the victims. They said the department no longer wanted to put out "every time a drug dealer shoots another criminal in the leg."
Since the department began tweeting shootings in 2009, notifications typically have gone out within 20 minutes of the report and are based off of brief summaries sent to commanders that don't include the victims' names, a motive, or their criminal history -- just a block number and street, and sometimes the location of the victim's injuries.
The resulting tweets have never included the such information either, and only a handful of the more than 500 shootings and homicides tweeted by the agency have later been determined to be self-inflicted gunshots or not shootings at all.
But Batts said the department brass has been in discussions about the problem of putting out incorrect information for a while. "How do you put that toothpaste back in the tube?" he quoted his chief of staff, Judy Pal, as asking.
At some point, the idea was floated to "one of the local newspaper guys" that the department would not tweet out shootings until 24 hours had passed. "Then that reporter put that out on Twitter," Batts said, and the issue ballooned.
Batts said the "idea" was never official policy. "The idea never made it up to me, because I would have said, 'No, we can't do that,'" he said.
But the department did put the policy into action, starting the afternoon of Oct. 4 when four shootings went without being posted to Twitter.
When The Sun pressed Monday if there had been a policy change, new spokesman Jack Papp confirmed that there had. Asked for clarification, Papp sent the following statement:
"The department is not going to tweet out every time a drug dealer shoots another criminal in the leg for nonpayment, i.e. criminal-on-criminal crime that we know," he said. "We will still tweet out instances where nonfatal shootings involve citizens, public safety issues, etc. in real time, as well as homicides."
Pal also went on television affirming Papp's statement, telling WBAL-TV: "If there is someone walking down the street at 9 p.m. with their family and they're shot, as a member of the media, that's a bigger story than someone who got shot because you didn't pay me my $25 for the dope I was trying to buy for you," Pal said.
The change brought negative reaction to the department from residents who follow the agency on Twitter, and City Councilman Brandon Scott condemned the comments about victims' criminal histories.
Batts said Thursday that the department is in the midst of brainstorming a lot of new ideas about putting out more information than ever, not less, from an "electronic newsletter" being put out straight from Batts' desk about larger crimes and "policy issues" to subdividing the districts and creating "district Twitter" accounts in addition to the main departmental account.
"There's nothing that we have to hide," he said. "Peel that onion back."