Baltimore's police commissioner wants to team mental health professionals with police officers and deploy them on emergency calls involving disturbed individuals to calm tense situations and decrease the need to use force.
"Having an officer and a clinician in a car, that's a big thing," Commissioner Anthony W. Batts told Baltimore's House delegation Friday in Annapolis.
Batts gave a wide-ranging briefing on department developments while continuing to pledge his desire to transform the force into one that addresses social, economic and health issues driving crime while fighting it.
Batts wants to form 18 teams made up of one police officer and one mental health professional who would respond to emergency calls where mental illness is suspected. He said such teams could make a big difference in dealing with people who are homeless, suicidal or have mental health problems.
The teams would be split among the city's nine police districts, with half working day shifts and the others on night shifts, Batts said.
The commissioner told the delegation that a similar program has been place for 12 to 15 years in Long Beach, Calif., where he used to work.
State Sen. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam, a Democrat whose district straddles the city-county line, has introduced a bill that would require that city and Baltimore County police establish such programs by June 1, 2016, though it does not include funding.
Police train all new officers on how to deal with calls involving people suspected of being mentally ill and review shootings to aid in training.
But the Baltimore Police Department has faced criticism amid allegations of excessive use of force and other misconduct. A Baltimore Sun investigation found that the city has paid nearly $6 million in court judgments and settlements in more than 100 lawsuits filed since 2011. The U.S. Justice Department is reviewing department policies and practices at Batts' request.
In May, Baltimore police came under scrutiny after two officers fired a Taser five times at a 19-year-old Good Samaritan Hospital patient while assisting hospital staff and security who could not control him. George V. King Jr. went into cardiac arrest and died six days later while on life support.
An autopsy determined that King died after a lengthy struggle and complications caused by meningitis. Prosecutors who reviewed the police response said the meningitis led to "extensive destruction" of brain cells, and King became "aggressive, combative and disoriented, possibly because of the medication he had been given."
No criminal charges were filed against the officers involved.
The incident and the community response led Batts to ask what hospitals want police to do when faced with similar situations, and he required supervisors to monitor all emergency calls to hospitals when officer assistance was requested.
In several police shootings in recent years, relatives of men who were fatally shot said they called police hoping they would defuse situations, only to lose loved ones when confrontations turned violent.
Among those killed were Rudolph Bell, a 63-year-old homeless veteran who was shot in 2012 after police say he cut an officer with a knife or bottle. Maurice Johnson, a 31-year-old man who suffered from bipolar disorder, was reported to have been throwing things at a birthday party in Northeast Baltimore when police tried to intervene and shot him during a struggle that sent an officer crashing through a glass table.
Batts' appearance in Annapolis followed remarks he made a week earlier before a task force formed by President Barack Obama to address police-community relations. In that appearance, the commissioner called on law enforcement to pay more attention to social issues such as literacy and mental illness.
Appearing before the panel, formed in response to unrest in Ferguson, Mo., after a police-involved shooting, Batts said officers should play more of a role in mentoring young people.
He expanded on that theme Friday, telling lawmakers he would like to send officers into the schools to teach — not just to enforce laws.
The commissioner told lawmakers his department had excellent relations with the city school system's autonomous police force.
Asked whether he could support a move to authorize school officers to carry guns, Batts said he would defer to Baltimore schools CEO Gregory E. Thornton.
But Batts said such a move would be reasonable, and that arming school officers could be helpful in the case of an active shooter. He said his department already trains school police on how to react to such incidents.
•Batts told the delegation that the department will work with the community and elected officials to redraw police district lines over the next year in a process that will be driven by empirical evidence rather than politics. Such plans have been discussed for more than a decade. In 2009 then-Mayor Sheila Dixon called it a "top priority" and Batts said in early 2013 that he hoped to tackle the issue with his $285,000 strategic plan. But the plans have never gotten off the ground.
•The commissioner assured lawmakers that the McKenzie Elliott case, in which a 3-year-old girl was killed by a stray bullet in the 3600 block of Old York Road in August, remains under active investigation after his department released its original suspect last month. Deputy Commissioner Kevin Davis said he believes some neighborhood residents know who the drive-by shooter was and urged them to call the police even if they do so anonymously.
•Officials announced their intention this week to start a pilot body camera program before the end of the year. "It's more complicated than people think," Batts told legislators. He oversaw the implementation of body camera use when he was the police chief in Oakland, Calif.
Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.