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Mayor joins Davis in visible display of new war on crime

Mayor Rawlings-Blake spends day at the side of her new police commissioner

Just hours after Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake chose Deputy Commissioner Kevin Davis to take over the city's troubled Police Department, the two were at the Western District station to address officers at Wednesday's 10 p.m. roll call.

She met with Davis again Thursday, aides said, discussing the work ahead as the two attended a command staff meeting at police headquarters.

The message was clear: Rawlings-Blake intends to work side-by-side with her hand-picked replacement for ousted Commissioner Anthony W. Batts to tackle Baltimore's surging violence.

"Her primary focus is really just nailing down and refocusing our strategy in the crime fight, and making sure we're getting the substance of that correct so that we're fighting the surge," said the mayor's spokesman, Kevin Harris.

"She's engaged. She wants to make sure the interim commissioner is getting everything he needs and he's getting a very clear signal about what she wants."

The mayor's highly visible involvement comes after she and the embattled Batts had faced weeks of criticism — over the death in police custody of Freddie Gray, the Police Department's handling of the rioting that followed, and the subsequent spike in the city's homicide rate.

Harris said that over the next several days, the mayor intends to hear from both neighborhood leaders and rank-and-file officers about how the department can better serve the city.

Firing Batts Wednesday was part of a "thoughtful and deliberative" process the mayor undertook to address the rising violence, Harris said.

The mayor believes that Batts effectively reformed the department — previously reducing the homicide rate, modernizing the police force, adjusting manpower to match peak crime hours, Harris said. But the adjustments he was making to the policing strategy weren't getting the results she wanted.

"We were not moving as effectively and efficiently as the mayor thought was necessary to stop the violence," he said. "Sometimes you have to adjust tactics, and sometimes you have to adjust leadership."

Over the past few months, Batts had installed new leadership in the Western District to draw on those officers' connections in the neighborhood. And he increased foot patrols there.

The former commissioner also brought Lt. Col. Melvin Russell — a well-regarded neighborhood leader — into West Baltimore to work with churches and neighborhood organizations to mend fences. Batts also decided to allow officers to ride two to a car for safety, and he increased the number of officers patrolling on the midnight shift.

But many in the community say Batts' approach was still lacking. Residents in some neighborhoods didn't feel safe. The number of homicides in Baltimore reached a 25-year high in May when 42 people were killed. In June, 31 were killed.

What religious leaders and elected officials say they want now is more effective public safety and a focus on repairing relationships with the community.

The Rev. Glenna Huber, a co-chair of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, said the coalition was "happy to hear Interim Commissioner Davis say that he would walk with his officers in the community to begin to rebuild trust. The level of violence in this city is out of control, and a change needed to happen."

Some clergy said they are ready for a fresh start.

"In BUILD, we believe it's a new day," said the Rev. Andrew Foster Connors, a co-chair of the group, which represents 40 congregations. "We're ready to roll up our sleeves and work with Commissioner Davis in rebuilding the trust that's been broken in the community."

Davis, besides his meetings with the mayor Thursday, also held a meeting with officers from the department's specialized units. Two who attended characterized the meeting as a "pep talk" in which Davis said he wanted to get the units working more closely again but using smarter, more deliberate tactics. The officers, who were not authorized to discuss the meeting, said they came away impressed and felt that they had his support.

He also visited the offices of Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby to talk with schoolchildren about law enforcement work.

Asked during that stop whether he had made any operational changes in his first 24 hours as Baltimore's top cop, Davis said he didn't want to rush into anything.

"I'm looking at everything under the umbrella of the Police Department, and I'll certainly make changes. I'm not going to make any knee-jerk changes or make changes for the sake of change, but I'm looking at everything," he said.

He has made at least one change, he said — assigning Capt. Gordon Schluderberg to "be in charge of any and everything that has to do with civil disturbance preparation."

Batts was heavily criticized in a police union report released Wednesday for not giving officers enough direction and not allowing them to respond to dangerous situations during the unrest without the proper equipment, in the view of officers involved.

Making Schluderberg the department's point man for civil disturbance issues, Davis said, will better prepare it for the future — even if it takes another half-century for such unrest to occur in the city again, as it did after the rioting here in 1968.

"He's in charge of the training, he's in charge of the equipment, he's in charge of the memorandums of agreement that need to exist with surrounding agencies," Davis said.

Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton, who represents parts of Northwest Baltimore, said she wants to see Davis communicate daily with the public, keep council members informed and work aggressively to improve the outcomes.

Middleton, who serves on the council's Public Safety Committee, said the city's commissioner must have "strong people skills to be able to face all kinds of situations... I am hopeful that he will have already started a plan of action. He's got a lot of work to do."

Councilman Bill Henry, who represents North Baltimore, said he had a chance to meet with Davis at a community forum shortly after the rioting.

Davis made a good impression on him, and many in the room, Henry said. More than that, Henry said, Davis seemed to understand why community relations are key to crime-fighting.

"He was very up front with the issues in the department, and about how the lack of relationship with a community affects clearance rate," Henry said. "The community doesn't think we respect them. We lost their respect and trust . I think he gets that."

Councilman James B. Kraft of Southeast Baltimore said city leaders, including Davis, should take a moment to assess the issues facing the Police Department. He also noted that with several outside reviews of the agency, the next commissioner will have to be prepared to make even more changes.

"What the interim commissioner has to do is step back for a second and take a breath, because there is so much going on right now."

Baltimore Sun reporters Alison Knezevich, Justin Fenton and Justin George contributed to this article.

ywenger@baltsun.com

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