Baltimore's new police commissioner has a full plate — and an opportunity

On his first full day on the job as Baltimore's interim police commissioner, Kevin Davis received a simple question from a young boy.

"Do the stars mean anything?" the boy asked, referring to the gold insignia pinned to Davis' collar that indicated his new rank.


"You know," Davis responded, "I ask myself that a lot."

As it turns out, that may be the question of the day.


Davis, 46, who was thrust into the position of Baltimore's top cop on Wednesday, must confront problems on several fronts. Homicides and shootings have spiked in recent months. Meanwhile, he faces two significant rifts — one between the police and the community, and another between police leaders and the 2,800 or so rank-and-file officers.

He also comes to the job without knowing how long he will hold it, but with demands from all corners about issues he should prioritize.

"What he has right now is a fresh start. It's a reset button for him, and I think people are going to look at him and say, 'OK, we're going to give you the benefit of the doubt and see what you can do,'" said Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. "It's going to be important for him to figure out how he can move things forward while this goodwill is there."

Davis was named to lead the department in Maryland's largest city after Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she had determined that controversy surrounding Commissioner Anthony W. Batts had become a distraction amid the surge in violent crime.


But the problems facing the department were hardly limited to Batts' leadership style, or even alleged shortcomings tied to the rioting and looting that broke out following Freddie Gray's death in police custody.

Now a turnaround is in the hands of Davis, who has only worked in Baltimore since January and who does not have a lengthy resume as a police chief. He also must navigate political challenges, including the prospect that the mayor could lose next spring's Democratic primary.

Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, a longtime Baltimore civil rights advocate and president of the Matthew A. Henson Neighborhood Association in West Baltimore, is "cautiously optimistic that things will turn around" under Davis. But Davis can't do it alone, Cheatham added.

Cheatham stressed that improving the department's relationship with the community must start with leaders in the nine police districts. He noted that the Western District has had seven commanders in the past 10 years, adding: "How are you supposed to develop a relationship like that?"

Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore officer who is an assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said that, at the moment, he is more concerned with Davis' relationship with officers than with residents.

"As acting commissioner, you're only applying Band-Aids, but you need some political capital," Moskos said. "The rank and file need some sort of sign that the department has their backs."

Others said regardless of what Davis decides to tackle first, he must act quickly.

"He needs to get the trust of the community back and the trust of the rank and file, and we need to do it as a team," said Gene Ryan, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, which represents rank-and-file officers in the city. "It's going to be a pretty hard juggling act, but I think it needs to be done."

Ryan said Batts had to go — "Once you lose the support of the rank and file, you lose your ability to lead" — but officers are willing to give Davis a shot.

Davis, for his part, says his top priorities are reversing the upward trend in violent crime and improving community relations. He also said he has been preparing for this moment since becoming a beat cop at age 22.

Davis, a fourth-generation public safety officer, said his will to win dates back to the days he played offensive guard — despite being just 5-foot-9 — on the football team at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, then a nationally ranked powerhouse.

"Most police officers who aspire to leadership positions actually crave the challenge," he said.

Davis was hired as a deputy commissioner in January at a salary of $154,900. It hasn't been determined if that will change in his role as acting commissioner, said mayoral spokesman Kevin Harris. Batts earned $201,700 a year.

Davis believes he can turn around the morale and performance of officers, while repairing relations with the community. Policing always involves buy-in from both groups, he said.

On Thursday, Davis met with plainclothes unit officers and detectives, who conduct special investigations, and told them that those goals are not mutually exclusive.

"Can we be assertive and effective crime-fighters and keep the community happy?" Davis recalled saying at the gathering in an auditorium at police headquarters. "That's the million-dollar question. I think the answer is yes."

He said the various special investigation units, currently spread out across the department, need to be under a "singular command structure so there's clarity in their mission."

Batts shifted the emphasis toward uniform patrol officers and away from plainclothes units who had been accused of harassing residents. Now Davis said he wants to restock the units so they are focused on short-term investigations to "go after the worst of the worst."

Davis said he also recognizes that patrol units are understaffed and unable to meet the demands of schedules that involve four 10-hour shifts per week. He plans to discuss restructuring patrol shifts with the union because the patrol ranks are so thin.

Ryan said he looks forward to talking to Davis about operational changes.

In some ways, Davis is on familiar ground when it's unsteady beneath him.

Davis became Anne Arundel County's police chief in 2013 after a misconduct scandal brought down a county executive who used his police protection detail to perform political and personal tasks. The police chief resigned amid the investigation.

Prior to that, Davis worked his way up to the second-ranking spot in Prince George's County Police Department. During that climb, he helped enact reforms demanded as part of a U.S. Department of Justice civil rights investigation into the agency. Federal officials probing abuses by the department's canine unit also found the agency did not have an adequate tracking system to detect problem officers.

A similar Justice Department probe is underway in Baltimore. Federal investigators are exploring whether there is a pattern or practice of discriminatory policing, including the use of excessive force and unlawful stops. A Baltimore Sun investigation last year revealed that the city paid nearly $6 million since 2011 for court judgments and settlements in civil suits alleging brutality or misconduct.

During a nearly three-hour-long Town Hall meeting Saturday organized by Del. Jill P. Carter, dozens of residents expressed frustration and outrage at what many described as long-standing practices of Baltimore police officers and leaders discriminating and using excessive force against residents in mostly African-American communities.

Several family members of Baltimore men who died after incidents involving police told their stories, including Tawanda Jones, sister of Tyrone West, who died after a 2013 incident, and Tiffany Clark, sister of Officer William H. Torbit Jr., who was shot and killed by police while responding to a fight in January 2011.


"A lot of people look at my brother as an officer, but they shot him with his badge on his chest," Clark said. "We just want the truth."


Carter, who said her own complaints in the past about unfounded police stops and arrests have been ignored, said she organized the meeting and panel discussion at Sojourner-Douglass College to find ways to "work together as a people to change the dynamic that has created a dysfunctional relationship between the people and officers sworn to protect and serve us."

Several panelists said they doubted that Davis' leadership can fix that problem.

Lawrence Brown, an assistant professor of public health at Morgan State University, said many of the city's police officers live outside the city and "don't have a real relationship with these citizens … We're not just segregated. We're hyper-segregated, and segregation increases the likelihood of excessive use of force."

Because Davis has worked in suburban counties, including Anne Arundel and Prince George's, "he don't have a clue," Brown said.

Some of the communities Davis served in Anne Arundel County "openly fly Confederate flags the size of this room in the beds of pickup trucks," said Christopher Ervin, a community activist and vice chair of Committee of Concerned Citizens.

When the Justice Department demanded more accountability measures in Prince George's County, Davis led the Bureau of Patrol and spearheaded efforts to ensure that supervisors appropriately examined footage from cameras inside police cruisers and that officers completed reports when they used force on suspects.

Melissa Eppinger, an Anne Arundel County mother of a heroin addict, said Baltimoreans will learn quickly how Davis pulls a community together. She lauded him for providing Narcan to county officers so they can prevent overdose deaths.

In 2014, Davis asked the county Department of Health and Crisis Response System for the resources. Officers got the drug and training.

"He took action and made a difference," Eppinger said. "He is accessible; just give him a chance."

Davis left the county police chief's job late last year, after a new county executive was elected.

To improve relations with city residents, Davis said, "we have to change our culture." His solution: retraining midlevel commanders who are the leaders that young officers look up to.

"Before we start beating up on the 24-year-old police officers and demanding that they change overnight, we have to get to the sergeants and lieutenants who they meet with every day and emulate every day," Davis said.

Last year, Batts raised eyebrows when he told national audiences that Baltimore's racism and segregation resembles the era of the 1950s and 1960s. Batts called for broad discussions on how city agencies and elected leaders could tackle the issue, and he pledged to turn the Police Department into an agency that addresses the socioeconomic and medical issues that surround crime.

Batts encouraged officers to join him in a reading program for elementary-age children, and he wanted to create a special unit that would team officers with a mental health professional in situations where a suspect showed signs of a mental health problem.

Davis sees the same problems that Batts did, but says the onus is on all local government agencies to address such issues.

"I think when cops hear that they have the burden to address racism and poverty and education and homelessness," he said, "I think cops misinterpret that message with, 'How do you expect me to do that?'"

Davis said Baltimore will be prepared if another round of unrest occurs during or after the trials of the six officers charged in Gray's arrest and death.

Rawlings-Blake has acknowledged that police did not have the equipment they needed to protect themselves during April's rioting, and said the department will be fully staffed with working riot shields and body armor in the coming weeks.

Making the department better prepared will help to boost morale among officers, Ryan said.

"Our officers feel demoralized from what they went through during the riots. They couldn't do their jobs," Ryan said. The union has complained that Batts instructed officers to hold their lines rather than engage rioters who were throwing bottles and bricks at them.

Davis said he will have special units trained by Aug. 28 to handle mobs and provide support to officers whose main job is to contain crowds. He said officers will use tear gas — something police had to borrow from other agencies in April — if violence breaks out, but only as a last resort.

Baltimorean John Brown, owner of R.J. Bentley's restaurant in College Park, said he developed a relationship with Davis when the then-major led one of Prince George's County's police districts.

Brown recalled the melee that followed the Maryland men's basketball team's victory over Duke in March 2010. Hundreds of students flooded the streets; police met them in full riot gear. Clashes ensued and police arrested 28 people. In the aftermath, Davis immediately forged better relations with merchants, students and police with a "calming presence," Brown said.

Brown acknowledged Baltimore's issues are bigger than those Davis faced in the county. But he said Davis is up for the challenge.

"This is very important," Brown said. "He can straighten it out."