Before I retired as a sergeant from the Baltimore Police Department in 1996 after 23 years of service, I had worked in a variety of staff positions. Given my background, I probably know more than the average Baltimorean about how difficult a job being the police commissioner can be without a competent staff to offload the pressure to comment on every criminal incident occurring in the city.
Recent quotes by city Commissioner Anthony Batts tell me he needs a surrogate like the late Dennis Hill — a former journalist who served for 22 years as the director of public information for the police department — to help him vent his spleen about how he feels about violent crime in the city in a much more constructive, less defensive manner, and perhaps tutor him about how to talk extemporaneously. I realize by his actions that he wants to be "up close and personal" in his dealings with the public, and that it is appreciated by Baltimoreans, but reticence and more reliance on a media professional is needed.
In a recent Baltimore Sun piece highlighting the commissioner's remarks during a radio interview, Mr. Batts criticized the media for not portraying the recent surge in killings in the proper perspective. This is something Mr. Hill would never have done — you don't want the media as an enemy, Commish.
"I'm a little concerned at times that we get people incensed, outraged, nervous, when you need to get a full picture of it," Mr. Batts told Anthony McCarthy on WEAA, according to the article. He went on to state that last year's homicides were the third lowest in the past 20 years. I assume he believes this was the right way for the media to assuage the concerns of everyone about the recent killings in the city. In so many words, "it's not so bad as in the past, so lighten up, and chill."
Baltimoreans don't want to hear comparison and contrast, though; what they do want to hear is what the department is doing to combat violent crime. Blaming the media for making your job tougher is blaming them for what the media is supposed to do — make you work harder and more creatively. Baltimore annually lands in the FBI's top 10 most violent cities per capita. Saying things could be worse, or were worse in the past, rings hollow in the face of reality.
Blaming the homicide victims for their fates also rings hollow, not to mention insensitive, and defensive, especially when their killings are described as "incidents." Some folks will agree with the commissioner's observation that some homicide victims get themselves killed because of illegal behavior like buying drugs on the street, but that reality shouldn't be used to somehow make the average citizen feel better about the killings. A new Dennis Hill would have better prepared the commissioner for the interview, partnering with him to keep him focused on the issue and stop him from playing the blame game — a no-no when it comes to media relations.
Then we have the commissioner's statements about the arrest of two teens in the killing of a Highlandtown woman, Kimberly Leto, in a botched home invasion. In a Feb. 3rd Sun article, the police commissioner is said to have remarked that the killing "was unconscionable" and to have expressed regret that the crime will result in three lives being thrown away — not only Leto's, but also those of the two teenagers. He is quoted as saying "It is unacceptable to see family after family ripped apart by such petty behavior. ... This is a heartbreaking tragedy on so many levels."
What stands out in these remarks is that they're lame sociological comments about family dysfunction — particularly the designation of a 51-year-old woman being stabbed to death in her home as "petty behavior." Plus, three lives weren't thrown away; a woman was viciously murdered, allegedly by two young teens, one of whom had previously broken into the victim's house. These two may have thrown their own lives away, but what is unconscionable is to somehow equalize their potential fate with the death of this woman.
Bottom line — get a professional in the media relations slot in the table of organization. Commissioner Batts obviously means well, but silence can be golden.
Jim Giza is a retired Baltimore police sergeant. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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