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Baltimore's police commissioner forges a hands-on image

When Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts appeared at a recent town hall, a woman stood to ask about police brutality, a touchy topic for both residents and officers. She said she worried for her young nephew, who was frequently stopped by police.

Batts' 10-minute answer ranged from the personal to the practical. He talked about his upbringing in South Central Los Angeles, drawing laughs about the fried bologna sandwiches his family ate to survive. He explained why people must sit cross-legged on curbs for officer safety, but understood police interactions can be demeaning for those detained.

"I can relate, because that's where I come from," Batts told the crowd of about 100 in a conference room at Good Samaritan Hospital. "But not all of my officers come from our communities, so we're trying to give them the tools ... so they can be more empathetic."

The moment is one of many Batts has used to connect with his audience and craft a reputation of a commissioner who is focused on Baltimore's communities. He and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake have held eight public safety forums as they make the rounds of police districts this year, an initiative announced after 2014 began with an ominous 27 murders in 31 days.

The top cop also has forged a hands-on image through a series of incidents in which he got personally involved, from punching a suspect who refused to drop a gun during an arrest to pulling a mother and her teenage son from an overturned car he happened to drive by. The department promoted both incidents on Twitter.

Baltimore's perception of Batts is critical for a man whose performance is questioned whenever the murder rate spikes, and whose tenure may depend on the political winds. As the face of the department, his image takes on added significance in a city like Baltimore, where resident distrust is often cited as a reason witnesses to crimes refuse to cooperate.

Batts, 53, came to Baltimore with an ambitious reform agenda and recently said only 40 percent of the plan has been implemented. He also must hold the line on the much-watched murder rate. Homicides are down more than 16 percent this year, along with all violent crime, after jumping in 2013 to the highest level in four years.

"It was very important for me to find someone who cared about the community and would connect with the community. He has both of those qualities," Rawlings-Blake said. "A lot of people are skeptical of outsiders, and he understands he has to put in the work to develop these relationships."

Some say Batts still has work to do in community relations. Brian Hayden, a 43-year-old resident of Fells Prospect, said he comes off like a politician.

"I'm rooting for him; I want him to do a good job. But he seems to be saying too much of the right things," Hayden said. "When it gets down to the nitty-gritty, it almost seems like he's just talking over people. It's hard to translate it to the ground."

Maurice Scott, 64, of Rosemont found Batts to be sincere after seeing him at a town hall in Southeast Baltimore, but still questioned whether his West Coast philosophy would work here.

"I was asking him about getting drug dealers off the block, and he was talking about trying to get community involvement," Scott said. "In my community, if you come around there with the police, you are targeted. … It's not our job to lock up the bad guys."

Matt Jablow, a former chief spokesman for three Baltimore police commissioners, said their appearances in the community help provide a window into the behind-the-scenes police work, while ensuring sure they stay connected with the issues on the street.

"It's got to be a prolonged effort," Jablow said. "It's fine when things are good to have people pulling for you, but it's even more important if things go south. People know when a commissioner is showing up for a PR opportunity."

Batts declined to comment for this article.

In Long Beach, Calif., where Batts spent most of his career, and Oakland, where he left after two tumultuous years, Batts developed a reputation as a charismatic, reform-minded leader. But in Oakland, that reputation took a hit — the San Francisco Chronicle once reported that among officers he was regarded as a "showboat," "overrated," and "in it just for himself." He also failed to advance his agenda with City Hall.

During his first year in Baltimore, Batts faced questions about his crime strategy and a decision to hire consultants to revamp the agency. Attrition spiked, and the agency dealt with a series of high-profile controversies, such as in-custody deaths and a rogue training exercise during which a recruit was shot in the head.

But this year, Batts' detractors have quieted.

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who has been critical of Batts, now says the commissioner is "on the right track" and "growing into this job." The city police union's president, Robert F. Cherry, said that while he disagrees with some of Batts' policies, "he's on the street, he's listening to these community members, and he's also listening to the officers."

Even a relative of Tyrone West, whose family holds regular protests to call attention to West's death in the custody of police officers last year, gave Batts high marks for his willingness to talk to them even while continuing to criticize the agency's handling of the case and naming him as a defendant in the family's lawsuit over the case.

"He comes from a working-class upbringing, and he understands the streets and community," said veteran radio host Marc Steiner. "But he also has the sophistication of somebody who has worked in high-powered political and intellectual circles as well. He's got a gift because of that."

His predecessor, Frederick H. Bealefeld III, was a lifelong Baltimore cop and walked the streets and attended community meetings, too, while holding regular news conferences where he took questions.

Batts' style has differed in that he has opted for regular appearances on local radio shows during which he takes questions from citizens — and fewer media availabilities with questions from reporters. During one radio interview, Batts explained that he preferred that platform because he was having a hard time getting an "authentic message out" without the media "distorting" it.

Batts has framed his community outreach as breaking with precedent, saying he has gone places "most commissioners haven't gone before," and has not shied away from criticizing the culture of the Police Department.

"I didn't break it," he told a crowd at one forum, referring to the Police Department, "but it's my job to fix it."

When Baltimore police officers shot a man in East Baltimore last month, Batts arrived on scene with his security detail and huddled with commanders. He shied away from the media gaggle, then drifted up the street where he shook the hand of an elderly woman sitting on her front steps.

In the next hour, his detail had gotten into a scuffle with an armed man that ended with Batts punching the man and taking his gun. Then the commissioner helped a resident carry her groceries. His public relations staff posted both incidents to Twitter. Last week, police said Batts helped pull a woman and her child from a car that had flipped over.

Wendy Addington, a Frederick resident who was pulled from the car, said she wasn't aware the commissioner himself had come to her aid until a paramedic remarked about it later. "Most people were standing around, and he kind of took charge and said, 'Let's do this,'" Addington said.

The frequent community meetings have given residents the chance to press their concerns.

In February, with Southeast Baltimore residents irate about crime after a series of incidents that included a woman's murder, Batts promised residents that they would see more foot patrols. But when Batts returned to the district this month for the eighth town hall forum, Butchers Hill resident Cory McCarty said such patrols had been as "common as unicorns."

Batts, who made $190,000 last year, explained that academy classes had produced fewer officers than anticipated, leaving the agency without enough resources. He said stemming attrition would be a priority.

McCarty, 37, said the response left him "cautiously optimistic."

"The fact that he is, four months after the previous meeting, continuing to try to engage and putting himself in a position to answer public questions seems like a good sign to me," McCarty said.

When one resident complained about police presence in Highlandtown, Batts told his staff to set up a ride-along in that area for the resident so he could see behind-the-scenes what officers were doing. When two women said there was buzz in their neighborhood that officers are refusing to take reports and document crime, Batts invited the women to a meeting at police headquarters to get more information.

He has been most passionate when talking about youth mentoring. He says he was able to achieve what he has because adults took him under their wing, setting him on the right path. Young people who cannot read by the time they're in third grade are unlikely to graduate, and will turn to a life of crime, he told the Northeastern District residents.

"And it all started when [they] were 5 years old. We want to do some crime-fighting? The government isn't going to save you from everything," he yelled. "That 5-year-old — reading to him, mentoring him, giving him some time — can make a difference in the city of Baltimore."

jfenton@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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