Baltimore's new police commissioner wants to expand his agency's focus beyond gun violence to burglaries, car break-ins and other crimes that affect a broader swath of citizens, he told the City Council panel that signed off on his confirmation Wednesday.
Anthony W. Batts, the former police chief in Long Beach and Oakland, Calif., breezed through his appearance before the City Council's executive nominations panel, receiving a 4-0 vote with one member absent. He'll face a final vote before the full council, likely next week.
He was praised by community leaders, the police union and council members, though he and his agency took heat over issues, including community relations, during the public-comment portion of the hearing.
Appearing for the first time in a Baltimore police uniform, Batts, who has been on the job for several weeks while awaiting confirmation, said his predecessors had been "tasked with one goal: reducing violence, namely homicides and gun violence." With homicides falling below 200 for the first time since 1978, he said, they "left a legacy of which they can be proud."
And while Batts said violent crime will remain a focus, with Baltimore still ranking among the most violent cities in America, he'll also concentrate on areas that "perhaps by necessity took a back seat" in recent years. Those include lower-level crimes more likely to be brought up in community meetings across the city.
"I have heard loud and clear the concerns of both elected officials, citizens and businesses in Baltimore regarding what some call less important crimes: burglaries, thefts, car break-ins, dirt bikes racing through our streets," he said. "It's these crimes that create fear in our community."
Council members said they liked what they've seen of Batts so far. William "Pete" Welch, who represents Southwest Baltimore, said Batts "realizes it's important to get the trust of the community. They'll be surprised and excited about the type of responses and changes he'll make."
Batts, who said he was keen on more foot patrols, also said he wants the department to use a paperless system for police reports.
He hinted at the possibility of major structural change that would have more officers responding to 911 calls. Batts said he commanded agencies with manpower issues in California, where there were 1.7 officers per 1,000 citizens. In Baltimore, he said, he has 4 officers per 1,000 citizens, but wondered whether they are being used properly. He said he's frozen all transfers as he evaluates staffing.
"My question becomes, where are these officers?" Batts said. "For me, in my previous commands, I have moved resources back to patrol to make sure we have the resources. When a resident picks up the phone and says, 'I need a police officer,' our core mission is to get there quickly and investigate those crimes."
The agency has claimed success in recent years by pointing to its deployment of plainclothes officers assigned to high-crime zones in the eastern, western, and northwestern areas of the city — a unit called the Violent Crimes Impact Section. It expanded last year to include two neighborhoods in Northeast Baltimore.
City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said the violent crimes unit is also the source of most citizen complaints and is not accountable, and called for it be put under the control of district majors. And council members Robert Curran and Brandon Scott asked for more resources for the Northeastern District, which they say is a victim of an outdated allocation of resources.
"We have to look at deployment overall in the city as a whole," Batts said.
Police command staff filled the City Council chamber, and Batts was flanked by Deputy Commissioner John Skinner, who has emerged as the top holdover from Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III's leadership team. In front of Batts was a paper nameplate that read, "Anthony W. Batts D.P.A.," a nod to his doctoral degree in public administration.
Beyond quality-of-life crimes, Batts addressed the "rank and file" officers, saying he would lean on them to find creative ways to solve and prevent crime. He said he'll also keep a close eye on organizational issues such as professional standards, "antiquated operating procedures," the agency's vehicle fleet, and internal investigations.
"I realize that litigation has taken an enormous toll on the finances of this city, and I truly believe that with stronger operating procedures, a dedication to relentless accountability, robust professional standards and continuous high-level and relevant training, we can not only significantly improve these systems but can make considerable strides in regaining the trust of citizens of Baltimore," he said.
Charlene Bourn and Jack Baker, two community leaders who work closely with police, said their experiences with Batts so far had been positive.
"I like this guy," Baker said. "He's tops."
Bourn was present when Batts met with the family of Anthony Anderson, an East Baltimore man who died while being arrested by police. His death, which has been ruled a homicide, remains under investigation.
"He and his staff were there out of concern for the family," she said. Citing the controversial shooting death of Larry Hubbard from the 1990s, she said: "A similar approach [then] would have been comforting."
But there were tense moments as well: Four residents asked about or referred to reports from a publication in Long Beach alleging that Batts had been involved in domestic-violence incidents there years earlier. He has not been charged with a crime.
Among those who raised the issue was Jean Allen, the president of the Edgewood Community Association, who said she had seen the accusations online. "Whether it's true or not, it's there," she said of the allegations being in the public realm. "We all want to know more about him."
Batts took questions only from council members, who did not raise the issue.
The Baltimore Sun has attempted to verify the report, reaching several people named in the article or by its author. None said they had direct knowledge or evidence.
Though Batts declined to discuss the article in detail, he has called it "humiliating" and said he had been cleared through multiple background checks.
"I have no legal or ethical issues in my background whatsoever," he said last month. After the council meeting, he told a reporter: "I went through a very thorough background check. I feel secure in my character and in doing my job and in leading this police department."
Council President Young was among the council members who have privately asked Batts about the article. Young met with Batts last month and reiterated Wednesday that he was satisfied with the commissioner's response that it was not true.
There was also a small protest outside City Hall before the hearing, which included comments from a woman whose son was fatally shot by police earlier this year.
Another resident, activist Leo Burroughs, ticked off recent police scandals, such as the towing scandal that led to more than a dozen convictions. "Most of us are mad as hell," Burroughs said. "What are you going to do about it?"
During his earlier prepared remarks, Batts said officers will be held to the "highest ethical standards."
"If you make a mistake with a good heart, I will support you. If you commit an offense out of the malice of your heart, I will hold you accountable," Batts said.
He brought several members of his family to the hearing, including aunts and a son. He declined to tell council members where he has set up residence in the city — not even which council district.
The president of the city police union, Robert F. Cherry, told the council that he was impressed with Batts' openness. He said an emphasis on patrol and a wider array of crime types is part of the union's pitch for reform.
"It's been said that there are two things cops don't like ... status quo and change," Batts said. "Well, I intend to stand on both. We will continue to drive down violent crime — that kind of status quo I can live with. The change will come from marked improvement in our systems and our commitment to community."
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