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Police Commissioner Batts says police need to tackle racism to build trust

Baltimore City Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts listens to a question during a recent session with the press at police headquarters.
Baltimore City Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts listens to a question during a recent session with the press at police headquarters. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts told a national task force on policing Friday that law enforcement leaders need to "tackle racism" in the community and broaden their roles to focus on issues such as literacy, mentoring and mental illness.

"We need to learn to address crime through social justice as a whole," Batts said at the meeting in Phoenix, Ariz. "Leadership should be focused not just on crime-fighting, but tackling racism."

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Batts told the task force, formed by President Barack Obama in December in response to unrest in Ferguson, Mo., that while his department has improved "every metric" of how it is judged, few recognize it because there is little trust. He pointed to a "visceral hatred of the Police Department."

He said racial issues hold the city back.

"When I go to Baltimore, on the East Coast, I'm dealing with 1950s-level black-and-white racism," he said. "It's taken a step back. Everything's either black or everything's white, and we're dealing with that as a community."

Through a spokesman, Batts declined to elaborate on the comment.

Batts said that on the West Coast, where he is from and spent 30 years as a police officer, there was a greater focus on diversity.

Obama created the national panel after the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Missouri by a white police officer, who was cleared of wrongdoing. The panel is exploring ways to build public trust and promote reductions in crime; the meeting was streamed online.

Reading from prepared remarks, Batts described efforts to reform Baltimore's Police Department, highlighting the importance of foot patrols in building relationships and saying that he has "eradicated" stop-and-frisk policies.

His remarks echoed those he has made in recent weeks, when he called his agency too "one-dimensional" as an enforcement agency when it also needs to address the economic and social issues behind crime.

"People kept telling me as I toured the city that kids have nothing to do in the summertime," he said recently. "They don't even have food. They don't even have anything to eat. How can you address that?"

Batts has noted that police created a Police Explorer athletic camp for kids last year staffed by commanders and officers who refereed games and worked with the youths on character building. About 150 underprivileged youths attended and were fed two meals a day during the camp, he said. Batts said he plans to double attendance this year.

He also said he has urged officers to join a city literacy and mentoring program, in which they read to first- through third-graders. His goal is to have more employees participate than any city department or agency.

Speaking to the panel, Batts said that as a police chief, he has a "bully pulpit" to start conversations about "racism, sexism, literacy, mentoring, mental illness, character building."

Task force members asked Batts about maintaining officers' positive attitudes in the face of mounting criticism and a skeptical public.

Batts, making reference to the country "going to war over misinformation" and "priests who've been pedophiles," said people have become more cynical and police will be increasingly questioned.

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"It's not going to get better — it's going to get worse," he said. "So we have to build employees who understand what that customer base is going to become."

Batts brought up the recent shooting of a city police officer, Andrew Groman, and Batts' remarks outside of the hospital that night in which he questioned whether people would march to support officers like they were marching against them in protest.

"That caused an atom bomb in my community, making that statement," Batts said. "However, I got notes from around the country, from around the world — moms, dads, wives, sons who have lost their loved ones."

"At some point in time, we have to move away from just 'Black Lives Matter' ... but 'All Lives Matter.' There needs to be a reverence for all life, across the board. If you can't make that statement on both sides, we have a bigger issue."

But Richmond, Calif., Police Chief Chris Magnus, a member of Batts' panel, disagreed with that framing of the issue, saying police leaders shouldn't diminish the sentiment voiced about deaths of black people in confrontations with police.

"We have to get away from the idea that it's a 'pick one or the other' kind of contest, which I think leads us nowhere," Magnus said.

Batts also was asked about the use of community "intermediaries" to build trust. Batts said he reaches out to pastors in neighborhoods to "give us credibility."

Previous Baltimore police commissioners have discussed the need for police to play a larger social role. Thomas C. Frazier, also a West Coast transplant who was commissioner from 1994 to 1999, famously billed himself as a "social worker with a gun."

But when Edward T. Norris took over, he said "there are social workers in the city. There are other agencies that provide jobs and other services. We're the police."

Frederick H. Bealefeld III, who was commissioner from 2007 to 2012, cut arrests significantly and promoted community outreach, but also cautioned about the need for police to "stay in our lanes."

Cincinnati Police Chief Jeff Blackwell said that as police become "more guardian-like and less warrior-like," they can fix poor relationships with their communities and be their own messengers.

"In some communities where it's really bad, you need leverage — you need 'lever-pullers,' " he said. "I don't want that in my city. I want to be the person that is connected enough to the community where I don't have to leverage a relationship with someone else so I can come somewhere and talk to people and have my message be received.

"I don't think for a minute anyone in the room thinks people in urban cores don't really want our help," Blackwell said. "The problem has become over the years the disenfranchisement that they've experienced due to police misconduct or perceived police misconduct."

The situation has "created barriers where people will live with the crime rather than call the police and not know what kind of service they're going to receive," he said.

Batts said police are making up for decades of well-meaning but misguided strategies, including "mass arrests."

"We thought we were doing God's work. We thought we were making a difference," Batts said. "We obliterated communities. … We have to find a new way to be a part of the solution."

Baltimore Sun reporter Justin George contributed to this article.

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