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Police department shake-up

ShootingsAnthony Batts

The major shake-up of the city police department command structure this week by Commissioner Anthony Batts brings to an end a months-long process during which the city's top cop has been working assiduously to put his own team in place. The transfers and promotions announced today reflect Mr. Batts' best judgment of his department's strengths and weaknesses as well as the effectiveness of the leaders he has appointed to key posts. Having put his personal stamp on the organization, he now owns it, and from this point forward he can expect to be held fully accountable for its success or failure.

That's as it should be. The city hired Mr. Batts to do a job, and it has given him the authority to proceed as he thinks best. The reorganization announced this week involved his shifting of some of the department's most talented younger leaders into positions where he believes they can have the greatest impact, and we will simply have to wait and see whether those changes produce the desired results. Mr. Batts won't be judged by what happens today or tomorrow but by the long-term effects of the changes he has introduced on reducing crime rates in Baltimore.

It's unfortunate that Mr. Batts' announcement comes just as the city is experiencing a spike in gun violence, exemplified by the 40 people who were shot during the final 10 days of June and the six shootings, one fatal, that occurred on a single day this week. It would be unfair to saddle Mr. Batts with exclusive blame for that — crime rates rise and fall periodically in response to social forces that are difficult to quantify and often impossible to predict. It's possible that some of the changes he made in the department have influenced that trend in subtle ways, but it's also possible that the upswing in crime would have taken place regardless of who was running the police department.

But coincidence or not, the recent violence has prompted some City Council members to question whether Mr. Batts is moving too quickly to revamp the department's leadership structure at the expense of maintaining continuity with the department's legacy of reducing crime in recent years. That's a valid concern, but it may be premature. This summer's outburst of gun crimes also underscored the fact that however successful the department's efforts to tamp down violence have been in the past, they're not working now.

Overall, homicides are up 11 percent compared to the same time last year, while non-fatal shootings are 16 percent higher and gun crimes of all kinds have increased by 8 percent over last year. No one knows exactly what is causing the resurgence of gun violence, though Mr. Batts suggests much of it is driven by turf wars among rival drug gangs. That interpretation seemed more plausible given the latest series of shootings, which occurred within a few blocks of last month's violence and may have involved some of the same actors.

In any case the commissioner surely knows he's got to reverse the upward spiral in gun crime if he is to succeed, and the leadership team he has chosen reflects that. All of them were rising stars in the department under his predecessor, Frederick H. Bealefeld III, whose policing strategy stressed getting illegal guns off the streets and targeting the most violent offenders. If anyone should know how to extend and expand on that legacy, it's them.

It may be a year or so before there's a more definitive verdict on whether Mr. Batts' staff changes have made a difference. By that time we'll be able to tell if the recent uptick in shootings was merely a statistical blip or an indication of a more ominous long-range trend. Mr. Batts arrived in Baltimore last fall amid high expectations, but it would be unrealistic to think he can turn things around overnight. Baltimore's problem with violence runs deep, and no matter what progress any of his predecessors have made, none has truly solved it. For now, Baltimore has put its faith in Mr. Batts' experience, skill and leadership to restructure the department in ways that make residents and visitors to the city feel safer. Ultimately, results are what counts, and that's the standard by which Mr. Batts and his team will be judged.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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