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Street by street, new police commissioner is learning Baltimore

A group of children play ball in the courtyard after dark as Anthony W. Batts walks through a high-crime West Baltimore public housing project wrapped around the Edgar Allan Poe House.

It's quiet here, with an officer permanently stationed on-site, but the new police commissioner's department is dealing with problems across the city — two people will be killed in shootings by the end of the night. As Batts travels through Baltimore to learn on the job about his new town, he'll also get a close look at the uneven relationship between police and the community.

Batts strides through the complex and introduces himself to a man named Lamont riding a bike.

"You're the guy from out of town?" asks Lamont.

"No, that's some short, bald dude," Batts jokes, referring to himself.

Batts tends to cringe when he gets this question. Yes, he's from California, where he grew up and spent 30 years as a police officer and chief in two major cities. But Batts says the city "feels like home. I feel comfortable here," and the academic in him wants Baltimoreans to know that many issues related to crime are universal.

Still, a city's history, its geography, its quirks and its pitfalls — those don't come easily. And though it may take some time to memorize the route from Park Heights to Roland Park, tours like this, in which Batts will walk neighborhoods on the west and east sides, help speed the learning process.

Wednesday night offers a stark reminder of Baltimore's challenges with crime. As he rides through desolate, dangerous areas with Deputy Commissioner John Skinner, a 19-year veteran who has worked every corner of the city, shootings occur elsewhere. There are also hundreds of Halloween revelers in the streets in Fells Point and Federal Hill.

In interactions with the few residents who are out, Batts introduces himself and shakes hands. He takes a picture with a boy dressed as a SWAT team officer for Halloween. He also gets glimpses of the enormous gulf between some citizens and police.

In West Baltimore, Batts tries to talk to a woman moving quickly down the opposite side of the sidewalk. She says she recognizes him from television but doesn't break stride.

"Not in this neighborhood," she tells him. "You talk to police, they call you a snitch; they'll try to kill you."

The police commissioner of Baltimore is left standing on the curb, dismissed by a woman who tells him idle chitchat could mean a death sentence.

On West Lexington Street, in the block where police recently shot and killed a man and where the sidewalk is spray-painted with the phrase "Respect is free, disrespect is costly," Skinner pulls the car up to a group of young men congregated on the street. They scatter, leaving two young women — 18 and 22 — whom they were visiting.

"Are you used to talking to police?" Batts asks the women.

"No."

"Does it make you uncomfortable?" he asks.

"Yes."

Batts disarms them with small talk, but the challenge in these neighborhoods is clear. Some people just don't like police, and they sure don't like being seen talking to them. Batts says that isn't unique to Baltimore.

"I don't think it's different from most major cities," he says. "It's part of our job. We have to take back the streets, and people have to trust that you'll take care of them. That takes hard work."

Skinner knows this, too. He has spent considerable time in command positions, but his instincts appear sharp and his ties run deep. He stops by a popular West Baltimore Street club where the crowd sometimes overflows and where Skinner knows about the mirrored door that conceals a private area.

He asks the owner of a North Avenue liquor store — once shut down by police — how his wife is doing and explains to Batts the parameters of the store's liquor license. He hugs the owner of an East Baltimore establishment who functions as a go-between for police and Korean business owners.

Driving up Poplar Grove Street, Skinner drives in a loop after seeing a group of young men in what he says is Crips gang territory.

"Let's see if they're wearing their blues tonight," says Skinner, referring to the gang's trademark colors.

The fact that one of them has an open container of alcohol becomes the basis for stopping the group, and, though most comply, one man is none too happy. He sneers at a patrol officer, who gets in his face. Sgt. Robert Snead, the commissioner's aide, dumps the blue alcoholic beverage out into the shrubs as backup officers arrive to run checks for open warrants.

Batts, meanwhile, plays "good cop," making good-natured conversation with an older member of the group. He can't make up for their annoyance over being stopped, but he'll try.

Just before Batts ventured out, 32-year-old William Simmons was shot dead about 8:15 p.m. in the 5300 block of Carriage Court. Less than two hours later, a 47-year-old man is shot and killed in the 6000 block of Marjorie Lane, and 41-year-old Michael Allen, who was shot the night before in the 1100 block of Homewood Ave., dies from his wounds.

Police would go on to make arrests in the Allen shooting, charging Warrentrez Blount, 16. And they arrest another 16-year-old suspect in a nonfatal shooting Wednesday night in the 1000 block of Broadway.

Batts says the Halloween night violence, during hours when kids might still be out trick-or-treating, is no more notable than any other time.

"Any day with violence is upsetting," he says. "We're putting out a tremendous amount of effort to try to get on top of things."

After driving past a property owned by the former drug kingpin "Little Melvin" Williams and then along Pennsylvania Avenue, a notorious drug corridor where police have made tremendous strides, Batts asks about the city's long history with heroin.

"Why has heroin been so pervasive here, and why has it stayed?" he asks Skinner.

"I don't know. It's always been the drug," Skinner says.

"There's a reason why heroin has stayed here. I'd like to know," Batts says.

Vacant homes also intrigue him. While he's seen severe poverty in other cities, the abandonment in some Baltimore neighborhoods is different than he's seen elsewhere, he acknowledges.

At Poe Homes, Robert Smith, the captain of the Western District arrives. Batts asks if he has the resources he needs. Smith gives it to him straight: We've been short, he says. He wants to put officers two to a car, but doesn't have the manpower.

"If you had the numbers, would you put two out together?" Batts asks.

Smith nods. With officers paired up, they can get deeper into the communities.

"I'm from the old school," he says. "I need to feel these streets. You stay in the car too long, you get tunnel vision."

Batts has a habit — he says he learned this on the West Coast — of opening his car door before his vehicle has come to a stop, like a Navy SEAL about to dismount from a moving helicopter. The reason, he says, is so you don't get trapped in the car, but it also seems to startle most people. Maybe it wouldn't if the car's interior light didn't switch on. Back home, he said, officers disable the lights for that very reason.

Batts also needs to get used to the weather. At one point, he asks if the low 40s is as cold as it gets here. He asks Skinner to turn on the heat in the vehicle and confides that he's wearing long johns under his police uniform.

"As long as I keep my head warm, I'm OK," he jokes.

A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the Edgar Allan Poe House. 

jfenton@baltsun.com

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