Get unlimited digital access to baltimoresun.com. $0.99 for 4 weeks.
News Opinion Editorial

Batts' mission [Editorial]

Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts' long-awaited consultant's report on how to reshape his department and drive down crime comes to what sounds like an obvious conclusion: The city's police should focus on gangs, guns and violent repeat offenders. The 200-page document underscores the extent to which that is easier said than done — it includes dozens of recommendations for changing the department's structure, procedures and use of technology. But at its heart, it tells us what we already knew — that gun crimes are the city's most pressing concern and that focused efforts by the police can help drive them down.

The question of the department's focus came into sharp relief last week when the American Civil Liberties Union raised questions about the department's tracking of officers' interactions with the public. The group reported that of some 123,000 documented stops of citizens conducted by police last year, only about 500 led to searches, resulting in a total haul of just nine guns, a knife and a handful of drugs.

The ACLU thinks it's unlikely so few weapons or drugs would turn up given the large number of stops made by police, so there must be something wrong with the numbers — either the cops aren't reporting all the searches they're making, or for some reason they're only managing to turn up a tiny fraction of all the illegal guns and drugs that are out there. Mr. Batts said he "strongly agrees" about the need for more effective record keeping.

But it's the stunningly low number of guns the officers found that should be worrying Mr. Batts the most. Illegal guns have fed the recent spike in Baltimore's homicide rate after years of steady decline, and no matter how many people police stop on the street because they suspect someone might have a joint in their pocket, such tactics won't end the carnage.

Indeed, since Mr. Batts' arrival in Baltimore he has said he wants to improve relations between the police and the community. Unfortunately, that may also be one of the reasons behind his decision early on to effectively disband the department's Violent Crimes Impact Section, which specifically targeted the relatively small number of "bad guys with guns" who commit most of the city's serious crime.

VCIS officers had been dispatched to high-crime areas across the city with a mandate to focus on gun offenders regardless of whether they were involved in the drug trade. It was a strategy that proved effective in reducing homicides, which had fallen to their lowest level in decades by 2011. But it also led to charges that residents were being harassed and scapegoated by officers simply because of where they lived. Mr. Batts responded to such complaints by reorganizing the unit and putting it under a different supervisory structure within the department. Unfortunately that didn't stop the complaints, nor did it lead to a reduction in homicides. In fact, just the opposite occurred.

The consultant's report suggests beefing it up again, arguing, in effect, that better police-community relations and narrowly targeted efforts against illegal guns are two sides of the same coin, not either-or options.

We hope that the reforms Mr. Batts is now pursuing will help the department to parse its community relations problem into separate drug and homicide components. Many city residents deeply resent being hassled over minor drug offenses, and they resent even more seeing their peers jailed for long periods for possessing small amounts of drugs or being linked to illegal sales.

On the other hand, there's broad community support for getting illegal guns off the street. In neighborhoods where nearly everyone has seen someone get shot, there's nothing ambivalent about residents' desire to see shooters locked up where they can't threaten further harm. Guns are the greatest risk of the drug trade to the innocent as well as the guilty in poor neighborhoods, and everyone there has a stake in preventing the violence from touching them, even if it means cooperating with police.

Mr. Batts is going to have to figure out how to strike that delicate balance between going after guns as aggressively as possible while maintaining strong community support for the department's efforts. But it stands to reason that if police come into a neighborhood announcing they're the gun squad, not the drug squad — and that their mission is getting illegal guns off the streets — they're a lot more likely to win the cooperation and respect of the communities they're sworn to protect.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
  • City's 'stop and frisk' oversight criticized
    City's 'stop and frisk' oversight criticized

    Batts says practice 'curbed'

  • Police bill of rights protects officers from frivolous claims
    Police bill of rights protects officers from frivolous claims

    As an attorney in the field, I feel compelled to point out the numerous inaccuracies about Maryland's Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights in Susan Goering's recent commentary ("Reform Maryland's officers' bill of rights," Jan. 16).

  • Help for the families of homicide victims
    Help for the families of homicide victims

    On behalf of our staff members and our colleagues in the Maryland Homicide Survivors Network who provide services for the loved ones of homicide victims throughout Maryland, thank you Baltimore Sun and Andrea K. McDaniels for shining a spotlight last month on the long term effects of violence...

  • Why I join in proclaiming #BlackLivesMatter
    Why I join in proclaiming #BlackLivesMatter

    Tamir Rice. Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Trayvon Martin. Kollin Truss beaten here in Baltimore.

  • Weeding out 'bad cops'
    Weeding out 'bad cops'

    Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake faces an uphill battle in this year's General Assembly when she and other officials travel to Annapolis to push for changes to a state law that restricts the power of police departments to discipline officers accused of misconduct. Yet curiously, one...

  • Security lapse
    Security lapse

    Who knew that the desk officers in Baltimore City police stations aren't always armed? Or that visitors don't have to pass through metal detectors to enter the building? Or that unless you're reeking of marijuana and acting as if you're high you can stroll into a station house carrying a loaded...

Comments
Loading