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After violent first year, Batts still pushing to remake city's police department

Law EnforcementGang ActivityShootingsDrug TraffickingAnthony BattsHomicide

As he ends his first year on the job, Baltimore police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts is facing questions about whether he is taking too long to remake the agency and develop a crime-fighting strategy. But others say he is being candid about the city's problems and deserves more time to make progress.

Batts, 53, said in a wide-ranging interview that he has been making improvements to the agency of nearly 3,000 officers, though not as quickly as he would like. He plans to keep a relentless focus on gangs and address issues of attrition and low pay for officers.

Against that backdrop, Baltimore is headed for a second consecutive annual increase in homicides, and the number of nonfatal shootings is on track to rise for the first time in six years.

"I think, by and large, the average citizen would say they're not sure where we're going and not comfortable with the direction," said Franklin Lance, a West Baltimore pastor and member of the Greater Mondawmin Coordinating Council.

City Councilman James Kraft of Southeast Baltimore said he felt that there "hasn't been much of a plan" amid recent crime spikes and says residents ask him of Batts: "Where is he?" Gov. Martin O'Malley said this week that the city has "hit a rough patch" and questioned the Police Department's approach.

But others say Batts has effectively communicated with residents and officials about Baltimore's struggles with gangs and drugs, broadening the discussion of an issue that at times has fallen squarely on the Police Department. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Batts has her full support.

"Commissioner Batts has a very challenging job," U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein said in an email. "He walked onto the field in 2012 just as the momentum began to shift. He needs to continue to reform the department, but he also needs to inspire and motivate the outstanding officers who helped drive Baltimore's murder rate to a record low just two years ago."

Batts, whose 30-year career prior to Baltimore was spent on the West Coast, believes attrition may be his biggest challenge. He said officers are "voting with their feet," leaving the agency amid frustration over pay and changes to their pensions.

Department statistics show that the number of officers leaving the force since Batts took over is 33 percent higher than in the same period before his arrival. The attrition rate and homicides have generally risen and fallen together over most of the past seven years.

In 2013, an average of 22 officers have left per month. Over the past six years, that monthly average has fluctuated between 14 and 21. But on a per capita basis, the force remains three times larger than the one Batts commanded in Oakland, Calif.

"We're going in the right direction [overall]," he said. "We've got to get to the negotiating table and need to get these guys a raise, and I think you'll see a turnaround of the [crime] numbers."

Police union leaders say they appreciate that Batts recognizes the importance of officer pay and morale, but progress has been slow. The union put together a series of recommendations last year covering strategy as well as compensation, and officials worry that they've been ignored.

"He's had a year already," said Gene Ryan, vice president of the city's Fraternal Order of Police lodge. "How long does it take?"

Batts said his first year in Baltimore has been marked by efforts to streamline police operations and to begin to address long-standing priorities such as redrawing police post boundaries. He has endorsed more foot patrols and created a new internal affairs bureau led by a former Los Angeles police commander.

In one of the most visible shifts, Batts has brought gangs to the forefront of discussions about crime. While his predecessors were at times accused of playing down gang activity, he's made it a focal point and says groups such as the Black Guerrilla Family are to blame for much of the city's violence.

"What we did not realize in the community was how much these gangs had gotten a foothold," said the Rev. Alvin Hathaway of Union Baptist Church in West Baltimore. "The Police Department has helped us understand that. Commissioner Batts has been forthright about that."

The agency has faced its share of turmoil since Batts started on the job a year ago this week at a salary of $190,000.

When he arrived in Baltimore, police were facing criticism over the death of 46-year-old Anthony Anderson, whose ribs were broken and spleen ruptured when he was thrown to the ground during a drug arrest in East Baltimore. Batts visited the family to assure them that police were taking the case seriously, and prosecutors later determined that the officers had followed protocol.

In February, a department training instructor shot and critically injured a trainee from another agency during an unauthorized exercise. Batts briefly suspended training functions and has struggled to find steady leadership for the academy. The officer, William Kern, is facing criminal charges, and the officer who was shot has sued the department.

Violence rocked Baltimore in late June, with more than 40 shootings across the city in a week. Batts was not a public presence as the death toll mounted, but then removed his chief spokesman and became nearly impossible to miss, crisscrossing the city trying to reassure residents that police had a plan to stem the violence. For a time, the agency tweeted photos of what seemed like his every move.

At the end of the following week, the commissioner addressed hundreds of men as they prepared take part in an anti-violence march along North Avenue. His speech was as much a defense of himself as it was a condemnation of the shootings.

"I've dedicated 30 years of my life to saving lives. This is what I do," Batts told the crowd, his tone rising. He spoke of people being shot in the head and "having their guts ripped out." This is not a game, he said.

"I get so tired when the media comes to me and says, 'Commissioner, what about this number. Commissioner, what about that number.' You know what goes through my mind? Those faces that I have seen as I walk the streets of Baltimore, as I walk the alleys, as I talk to them like when I was out last night at 3 in the morning and I see kids on the street."

He continued: "This is not about numbers to me. This is about young women, young men who are dying on these streets. Not just in Baltimore, but in Chicago, in Detroit, in Philadelphia, in Oakland, in Long Beach. There's just too many black faces dying on the streets of America as a whole."

Rawlings-Blake said she supports Batts' crime-fighting strategies, and believes he has taken the right approach to Baltimore policing in his first year here.

"I have confidence in Commissioner Batts, because of his emphasis in putting more feet on the street and building the much-needed relationships in our community," Rawlings-Blake said. "I'm proud of his emphasis of getting in the community and making sure everyone understands it's not them against us, which is for far too long what people felt."

Police note that the number of shooting incidents is about the same as last year, but more people have been struck. Multiple-victim shootings have increased from 14 at this time last year to 33.

City Councilman Warren Branch noted that homicides were up across the country last year, particularly in cities the same size as Baltimore. He said Batts has been communicating regularly with him and other council members, and said that goes a long way toward building confidence in the commissioner.

"We can't predict when the next shooting or homicide is going to take place, but I feel very comfortable with him," said Branch, an East Baltimore councilman who chairs the Public Safety Committee.

Batts also insists that "close to 90 percent" of the city's violence "is gang member-on-gang member, drug dealer-on-drug dealer," a claim City Council members have increasingly been repeating.

Internal data lists known gang or drug motives for 65 of the 167 homicides that have occurred this year, while officials note that 75 percent of homicide victims have at least one drug arrest.

Sixteen killings involved children or domestic violence.

"Very rarely do you have normal citizens that are not introduced into criminality getting impacted by the violence in the city," Batts said. "Any loss of humanity is a significant loss, but most likely the good citizens here are not going to be impacted by that level of violence."

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young has said that there may be too much talk about gangs.

"The commissioner is trying his best to get a handle on what's going on. He seems to think it's all gangs," Young said. "I think we give them too much credit."

Batts said some changes have come more easily than others. Some criticized his move to bring in consultants at a cost of $285,000, saying the city reached outside the department in hiring him for that very reason. Their broad assessment of agency operations is still not completed.

He also lamented a slow internal discipline process, but said changes are difficult due to state laws protecting officers' rights, he said.

"Nothing moves fast in Baltimore," he said with a smile.

But Batts seems primarily focused on attrition, which he believes is hampering the agency's ability to properly implement its anti-crime strategy.

Rawlings-Blake said she hopes to emerge from negotiations with the police union with better pay for officers.

"We were able to get a decent raise for the firefighters and do that because of a compromise," she said. "It gave me hope we would be able to do the same thing."

Two Baltimore Fire Department unions reached a compromise with the mayor's office in August that will require them to work more hours but will significantly boost their pay.

Batts emphasizes that police need to repair their relationships in the community, but that the city also needs to shake itself from the idea that police can solve the crime problem alone

"What we have as a tool is the ability to arrest people," he said. "That can be good, that can be bad. That can exacerbate a problem.

"I'm going to push this organization to arrest the bad guys. But the city of Baltimore has to say, 'We've had enough of this, and we will do anything we need to do to address that, whether its changing laws, changing attitudes.'"

Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

jfenton@baltsun.com

Baltimore crime trends in 2013

Homicides: Up 11 percent

Nonfatal shootings: Up 21 percent

Total gun crime: Up 4 percent

Total violent crime: Down 5 percent

Arrests: Down 11 percent

Attrition rate: Up 33 percent*

*Number of officers leaving the agency during Batts' 12 months compared to the same period before he took over

Source: Baltimore Police Department, Comstat data, as of Sept. 14

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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