“We need a change. This was not an easy decision, but it is one that is in the best interest of the people of Baltimore," said Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake fired Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts Wednesday, saying his presence had become a distraction in a city that needs to focus on ending a dramatic spike in homicides.
"Too many continue to die on our streets, including three just last night and one lost earlier today," Rawlings-Blake said. "Families are tired of feeling this pain, and so am I. ... We need a change."
The mayor's decision to replace Batts on an interim basis with Deputy Police Commissioner Kevin Davis — effective immediately — came as the City Council was preparing to send her a letter calling for Batts' resignation. And the city's police union was poised to hold a no-confidence vote next week.
Batts was under attack on multiple fronts amid the disclosure that some police stations have been closed to the public after 7 p.m. and news that three people were shot to death Tuesday night near the University of Maryland's downtown campus. On Wednesday morning, the Fraternal Order of Police issued a highly critical report of police leadership during the recent rioting.
In her late afternoon news conference, Rawlings-Blake said she was responding not to that report, but to her concern about continued violence. "Recent events have placed an intense focus on our police leadership, distracting many from what needs to be our main focus, the fight against crime," she said.
Her timing surprised some. Just hours before announcing that she had fired Batts, the mayor's office issued a statement denouncing the union's report as "no more than a trumped up political document full of baseless accusations, finger pointing and personal attacks."
Batts, who was confirmed to a full six-year term last September, told The Baltimore Sun that he leaves the job proud of his service.
"I've been honored to serve the citizens and residents of Baltimore," he said. "I've been proud to be a police officer for this city."
Under the terms of his contract, he will get $190,000 in severance plus a payout for unused leave. He had been earning $201,700 a year.
Rawlings-Blake's decision was applauded by many church and political leaders, some pointing to the rise in homicides, which reached a 25-year high in May when 42 people were killed. In June, 29 were killed.
But others pointed to the commissioner's rocky relationship with the community — and with rank-and-file officers.
"It's very clear that the coach has lost the locker room," said Councilman Brandon M. Scott. "Once the coach has lost the locker room, it's up to the manager to the make the decision that either the coach goes or the locker room goes."
The Rev. Jamal H. Bryant, a civil rights activist and pastor of Baltimore's Empowerment Temple, praised the "incredibly good decision on the mayor's part to start the process of healing between the community and the police department."
Rawlings-Blake, who hired Batts in October 2012, described much of his record in positive terms Wednesday, saying he had instituted many reforms. She said he put more officers on the streets during the hours when crime is more likely to occur, brought more transparency to the agency and improved police accountability. "This was not an easy decision," she said.
Under his six-year contract, if Batts were fired for "just cause" — defined as alcoholism or drug use, committing a felony or being persistently negligent — he would not be entitled to severance. In being terminated without cause, he is entitled to the severance and payout. Sean Naron, a Rawlings-Blake spokesman, said Batts' immediate dismissal Wednesday is considered a firing.
It's unclear how soon the mayor may look to name a permanent replacement for Batts. She hailed Davis, who previously held police leadership positions in Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties, for his "decades of distinguished service and results."
"Under his leadership, we will continue to take guns off of our streets. We will continue our focus on repeat violent offenders," Rawlings-Blake said. "We'll continue to look for ways to hold officers who act out of line accountable for their actions."
Warren Alperstein, an attorney who represents about 30 Baltimore police officers who were injured during the rioting after the death of Freddie Gray, warned that officers may associate Davis with Batts, potentially stalling progress.
"The resentment is not just toward the commissioner himself," Alperstein said. "It certainly extends throughout his administration."
While some focused on the deteriorating relationship between the police union and the commissioner, state Del. Curt Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat, saw Batts' chief failing as not being able to reform the culture of the department. A Baltimore Sun investigation last year found that city taxpayers had paid nearly $6 million since 2011 to settle 102 lawsuits alleging police brutality and other misconduct.
"I know there was a lot of frustration over what was going on in Baltimore," Anderson said. "Clearly when the discussion about the police commissioner becomes more important than actual problem, the mayor has to remove that obstacle."
Anderson counseled Davis to get a strong leadership team in place so he can carry out his agenda. If Davis is unable to take control, Anderson said, it will raise the question of whether the lower ranks are the department's real problem rather than its leadership.
Still, Anderson, the co-chair of the General Assembly's new working group on public safety, said he'd prefer someone from outside the agency be chosen as Batts' permanent replacement.
"I'm not sure a person who's in the system can see it for what it is," he said.
Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector said Davis' appointment, with his knowledge of the area, is promising. Batts had relocated to Baltimore from California, where he had long worked in law enforcement.
Davis is "closer to home, so I am hoping that makes a big improvement," Spector said. "We do have a problem when you bring someone in who doesn't know North Avenue from Northern Parkway."
Councilman Nick Mosby thanked Batts for his service, but said a change in leadership was necessary.
"I hope this change will be a complete reset of a cooperative relationship between the mayor, the city council, rank and file officers, the commissioner's office, and the community," Mosby said. "Baltimore sorely needs leadership during this time of crisis."
Councilman Edward Reisinger said members were preparing Wednesday to draft a letter to Rawlings-Blake calling for Batts' resignation. Council members discussed delivering the letter as early as Thursday. Reisinger said he's glad the mayor took action first.
"It's overdue, way overdue," Reisinger said. "Batts said he had a plan. I hadn't seen anything."
Two council members — Robert Curran and Warren Branch — said they continued to support Batts. Some community members also defended him.
Munir Bahar, co-founder of the city's 300 Men March, said Batts' resignation won't fix the cultural and systemic problems creating violence in Baltimore. Having Batts shoulder the blame deflects the need to for the city to address long-standing problems.
"Personally, Batts, I respect him," Bahar said. "I respect him as a man who stepped into a mountain of a problem, and has stepped into it with courage and confidence and a willingness to tackle an issue that he did not create."
Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, known as BUILD, will hold a news conference Thursday to discuss the city's next steps. The group represents 40 interfaith, multiracial congregations made up of 20,000 people.
The Rev. Andrew Foster Connors, BUILD co-chair, said under Batts, city officers did not have the necessary guidance or training.
"His officers have lost confidence in him," Foster Connors said in a statement. "The faith community, business leaders and residents have lost confidence in him. He is a leader without a following. And the community is suffering."
Earlier in the day, Rawlings-Blake had lashed out at critics of Batts' leadership. By late afternoon, the mayor said she felt her decision to fire Batts was in the best interest of the city, and the officers who serve it.
"The people of Baltimore deserve better," she said. "The brave men and women of our department who put their lives on the line every day to make our city safer deserve better, and we are going to get better."
Baltimore Sun reporters Justin George, Kevin Rector, Ian Duncan, Scott Dance and Justin Fenton contributed to this article.