New Baltimore Police Commissioner Batts seeks fresh start

Baltimore's next police commissioner is walking through a west-side neighborhood with some of the community's most engaged residents, but that's not enough for Anthony W. Batts.

He wants to talk to a teacher sipping coffee on her porch. He jogs across the street to greet an older woman standing on her front lawn. "Thank you for being involved," Batts tells the group giving him a tour of Bridgeview/Greenlawn.

The charm offensive is meant to convince Baltimoreans that a law enforcement career spent on the West Coast has prepared him to police one of the most dangerous cities in the East.

He comes to Baltimore looking to regain his footing as a crime fighter after leaving his last job amid conflict and spending a year on the sidelines. This week, he'll take over a police department that has overseen a sharp decline in homicides in recent years but still grapples with gun violence, and that has a force nearly five times larger than his last.

The expectations are monumental. The 52-year-old's arrival has Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake talking about Baltimore becoming the "safest big city in America."

On the walk, Batts is attentive and asks questions, displaying some of the qualities that propelled him through the ranks in Long Beach, Calif., where he worked for close to 30 years, became the city's youngest chief and built a reputation for community engagement.

Batts sets big goals and exudes charisma, from his disarming and sometimes self-deprecating public appearances to the monogram on his shirt cuffs. Short but powerful, he's got a doctoral degree, spent time at Harvard University, and has a list of references that reads like a who's-who of policing — including the chiefs of many of the country's biggest cities.

But he also has critics who see him as superficial and arrogant, and some say he checked out of his last job when things got tough. Batts was drawn from Long Beach to Oakland in 2009 to fix a department in crisis, vowing to vault one of California's most crime-ridden cities to a place among the state's safest. He resigned before two years, with uneven results.

He'll have to bring a more enduring commitment to his new job, said Cseneca Parker, who does anti-violence work with True Vine Ministries, a West Oakland church. His troubled Bay Area city continues to struggle with the crime problems that Batts said he hoped to solve when he took office.

"We loved him," he said. But "we can't leave West Oakland. Our babies and our families are here. He's going to have to be strong [in Baltimore], and have more stick-to-it-iveness."

After years of leading West Coast departments decimated by budget cuts, his supporters think he's primed to make a difference in Baltimore.

"If they expect him to tap dance and make people happy, it won't work," said former Long Beach vice mayor Doris Topsy-Elvord. "He's going to do what's best for the city. And he'll tell you what's best."

Into Long Beach

As a young black officer starting out in Long Beach, Batts recalls seeing racial epithets scrawled in police stations. There were few other officers of color, and it was clear nothing would be handed to him.

It was exactly what he said helped motivate him to get into policing.

Batts was born in Washington, D.C., where he lived until his family moved to the Los Angeles area when he was 5. Growing up in the Adams Boulevard corridor of South Central Los Angeles, Batts said his youth was marked by "all the dysfunctionality of gangs, violence, drugs and prostitution that a young person shouldn't have to see or grow up with."

He enjoyed watching police dramas on television like "Police Story" but didn't see a reflection of himself and his neighborhood.

"I was impacted by wondering if police officers or government cared about a young kid like me," Batts said.

His parents separated when he was 6, and Batts' mother kept him out of trouble with a busy schedule of school, church and sports, including baseball, football and track. His mother, a school board employee who early on stressed the importance of college, arranged for him to attend the more affluent John Marshall High School. The campus, near the ABC Television Center, served as the backdrop to the carnival scene in "Grease."

He enrolled in the Los Angeles Police Department Explorers program, a sort of Boy Scouts for law enforcement.

After high school, he enrolled in Santa Monica College and then California State's Long Beach campus, and had designs on becoming an attorney. During that time, he mentored at-risk youths, and said the death of a boy he was working with was the transformative moment that convinced him to become a police officer. Though he offers up this personal story and others, he is also guarded on details, declining to identify the boy or discuss the circumstances of his death.

"He had an opportunity to go left, and an opportunity to go right," Batts says of the boy. "He wasn't a great student, he struggled to get C's. He lost his life the Friday before the Monday I was to start law school."

Instead of studying to become an attorney, he signed on with the Long Beach Police Department, where he would rocket through the ranks to become chief — a post he held for seven years, beyond the usual tenure for police administrators.

A port city about 30 minutes south of Los Angeles, Long Beach has about 465,000 residents and is a convention destination with expensive beachfront homes, though it's also largely working-class and has a median income 16 percent below the California average, according to U.S Census data.

During the crack cocaine boom that saw violence explode across the country, Long Beach struggled with a jump in crime as well as complaints of excessive force. In 1992, the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles also spread to Long Beach — one person was killed, 360 were injured, and mobs caused $20 million worth of damage.

The city was already dissatisfied with its police department and at one point had nearly dissolved the force entirely. In a compromise, the city arranged for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department to patrol a portion of the city.

Once dubbed "Iowa by the Sea" due to a heavy presence of Midwesterners, the city's demographics changed dramatically, with a sharp rise in the number of blacks, Latinos and Cambodians. Long Beach is said to have the largest population of Cambodians outside that country, and in 2000 the city was named by USA Today as the "Most Ethnically Diverse" in the United States.

Batts held various assignments throughout the agency but continued to follow his mother's guidance about the importance of education. He earned a master's degree in business, and later became the youngest commander in the agency's history.

He completed a doctorate in public administration in 1998 from nearby University of La Verne, with a dissertation on police use of force. He became a father, having three children, two of them through a marriage that ended in divorce.

Early on, Batts began to build community ties that would pay off. In 1994 he was selected to participate in a program called "Leadership Long Beach," where he helped push the idea of midnight basketball games to keep youths off the street. He was also forging relationships with local clergy, bonds that would be crucial when the department faced trying times.

"He was a tremendous role model to young men," said former City Councilwoman Tonia Reyes Uranga. "I'd like him to come back and run for mayor."

Robert Luna, now deputy chief of patrol for the Long Beach Police Department, remembers talking shop with Batts as they pumped iron in the weight room.

"The question you always have to ask yourself is, and Tony Batts taught me this: What kind of a relationship have you built with your community?" Luna said in an interview. "They cannot have their police leadership only come out when bad things happen. You have to put credits into the bank so that when you speak, people know you, they trust you, and they know where your heart's at."

Luna drives his unmarked sedan through a territory he says is controlled by the East Side Longo gang, then pulls up to an alley where he recalls a controversial police shooting taking place. The victim turned out to be unarmed, but police phoned community leaders to bring them close to the crime scene and tell them what had happened. If they were upfront and frank, Luna said, they could mitigate the outrage.

Batts married a second time, in 1997, to Laura Richardson. She would later become a city councilwoman, and their relationship lasted for four and a half years, with the couple separating just months before Batts was sworn in as chief. Richardson, who dropped "Batts" from her name that week, would go on to win a seat in Congress, which she is fighting to retain in this fall's election after being reprimanded on the House floor for ethics issues.

'That man is intense'

Batts, with his parents at his side, became the youngest chief in Long Beach history at 42. "To those who would shoot, beat, stab and take advantage of the weak, a message: We're coming," Batts said at his swearing-in.

As chief, Batts gained a reputation as transparent and communicative to the public, while doing ride-alongs to talk to officers about their concerns and ideas. As part of one initiative, officers were directed to visit church services on Sundays as a way to strengthen police relationships in the community.

With budgets tight, he worked to eliminate redundancies: gang squads were investigating gang members dealing drugs, while drug squads were investigating drug dealers who were gang members. He slimmed them into one "major crime" unit, connected to patrol.

Luna, who was tapped as Batts' chief of staff, said Batts was absorbed in the work.

He recalls a conversation in which Batts warned him that their time together would be an intense ride and require Luna's full commitment. "He told me, 'Buckle up, big boy.'"

Batts became a stickler for accountability, demanding that officers be ready with answers to problems that cropped up. It was not rare to get a 3 a.m. phone call from Batts, who wanted to know how officers were responding to a flare-up of violence.

"I'll warn the cops there, that man is intense," Luna said. "He has very high standards, from a policing perspective. If somebody was shot, he wants to know about it and wants to make sure his command is aware of it."

Crime dropped under Batts to the lowest levels since the 1970s, according to news reports, even though the department dealt with several years of budget cuts.

Luna, a Mexican-American, said he looked up to Batts, a fellow minority officer who had risen through a department with few, if any, minority supervisors. Luna said he found Batts always willing to offer guidance.

But Darrin Neely, who has known Batts for 27 years, said he found Batts as chief to be a failure. It's a strong assessment coming from a man who made Batts the godfather of his youngest child years ago. Neely also served as president of the black officers' association and said Batts' rise offered promise that the agency would become more diverse. He now says that Batts turned his back on many of those who helped him get to the top.

"As chief he did some good things, in regards to equipment and deployment of resources and things of that nature," Neely said. "From a personal standpoint, I wouldn't trust him any further than I can see him. He's very articulate, charismatic, looks good on paper, but in my opinion, there's a hidden part of him that people don't get until later."

Neely said the department was woefully lacking in minorities under Batts, and remains so today.

In Long Beach, where the Police Department has not brought in a class of recruits since 2008, there are more than 800 sworn officers. Fewer than 50 of those officers are black, and Neely said only a handful are sergeants or lieutenants. There's never been a sworn African-American female supervisor in the agency.

Batts said he pushed to increase diversity and had a command staff that "looked like a rainbow."

"I was a chief of police for the entire department, and everyone had an equal opportunity to advance," he said. "Nobody will hand something to you — you have to earn it."

Toward the end of his tenure, the city was slapped with a $4.1 million judgment in a civil case brought by three police officers who said they had been punished for blowing the whistle on a group of officers fishing for lobster while on duty. The civil case implicated Batts, who was called to testify about whether he called the officers who complained "malcontents."

One of the plaintiffs, Warren Harris, said they only asked for an apology from Batts. "He was so arrogant," Harris recalls.

High hopes in Oakland

In late 2009, word leaked that Batts was to join Oakland as its police chief. According to Batts, he had been planning an exit from Long Beach and was approached by a recruiter who asked if he had interest in leading the force in Oakland or across the bay in San Francisco. He says he found Oakland "too gritty" and initially declined.

Days later, four officers would be killed in Oakland, the deadliest attack on California law enforcement in 40 years. On March 21, a 26-year-old convicted felon named Lovelle Mixon raped two women at gunpoint, and hours later was stopped by motorcycle officers for a traffic violation. Mixon opened fire without warning, killing Sgt. Mark Dunakin and Officer John Hege.

A manhunt led officers to a home on MacArthur Boulevard, where SWAT officers were ambushed by Mixon, who now had an SKS assault rifle. Sgt. Ervin Romans was killed, and Sgt. Daniel Sakai was struck in the ensuing gunfire and died days later.

Batts attended the officers' funerals, and said he decided he could make a difference in Oakland. Mayor Ron Dellums, a former 14-term congressman and septuagenarian who returned from Washington to become mayor, considered the hire a coup. He was impressed that Batts visited Oakland on his own time to talk to residents and observe police.

"What I felt I was doing when I employed him was to say to a major portion of the community, 'Here is a guy who looks like you, that you can both respect and trust and have confidence in.' He delivered on that," Dellums said. "Everywhere that I went, across all lines, people came up to me and said, 'Thank you for Anthony Batts.'"

Though Oakland's crime rates and position as a port city suggest a kind of similarity to Baltimore, they have little in common aesthetically.

Instead of vacant rowhomes, Oakland's troubled neighborhoods are more likely to consist of colorful one-story bungalows with fenced-in yards. Graffiti seems omnipresent. Large-scale growing of marijuana was legalized here, and the city is fighting to retain two of its pro sports franchises: the baseball Athletics and basketball's Golden State Warriors, who have their eye on more affluent cities in the Bay Area. Commercial strips include smog-check stations and Jack-in-the-Box restaurants.

Batts brought no one from Long Beach with him, but hired a former colleague, private consultant Scott Bryant, to help him perform an audit to determine the agency's efficiency. West Coast police departments generally make do with fewer resources than their East Coast counterparts, but in Oakland, the situation was particularly dire.

Batts delivered a sobering assessment of the job ahead.

"The current reality is not very positive," he wrote in a message that prefaced a strategic plan for the department. "Oakland is not a safe community — it is in fact among the least safe and most violent in the U.S."

Nonetheless, he said that by 2015, it could be among the safest in California.

His frank talk impressed residents. "Everything I've seen from Chief Batts tells me he's playing his own game and not the City Council's game or the mayor's game or anyone else's game," a community leader told the Oakland Tribune. The news media were skeptical; one columnist said it was "like watching a boa constrictor dine: you just can't see how the animal is going to digest the meal without choking on it."

Batts doesn't regret the big talk. "Why not strive to be the best?" he says.

'An unbelievable mess'

For a city of 400,000 and with one of the highest violent crime rates in the country — last year it was fourth behind two Michigan cities, Flint and Detroit, and St. Louis — Batts had 800 officers, a figure that was slashed to 640 in his second year. In comparison, Baltimore, a city of 620,000, has 3,000 sworn officers.

Again, Batts reached out to ministers and attended community meetings, vowing to residents that he would be accountable.

"The grass did not grow under his feet — wherever the crime was, wherever the hurt was, that's where he went," said retired pastor J. Alfred Smith Sr., who led one of Oakland's largest congregations. "You're talking about a police chief with a doctorate and all the sophistication of academia, but whose humanity is intact."

But Dellums went back to Washington, and Batts saw looming concerns with any of the possible successors, including Jean Quan, an activist turned City Council member who would take the election. Dellums had been relatively hands-off, but Quan wanted stricter oversight that Batts said ground progress to a halt.

"Oakland is a fast-moving city that has issues on a constant basis, and you have to have the ability to move and react to those things," Batts said.

Just one month into Quan's term, word surfaced that Batts was a finalist to become the chief in San Jose. He didn't get the job, but to Quan and her staff, it seemed apparent that Batts was losing interest in Oakland.

"My assessment was that he was kind of an absent police chief," said Dan Siegel, a former Quan adviser. "His greatest success was in doing public relations and self-promotion. He did a great job going around to community groups, particularly in African-American neighborhoods, and talking a great line about himself and what he planned to do. A lot of people were very enthusiastic about him. But at the level of actually running the department, nothing happened on his watch."

His department would be taken to task by a federal judge, who threatened to take over control of the agency for failing to make progress on a federal oversight agreement. That deal stemmed from a police corruption case that predated Batts' tenure by nine years, and supporters say it was a near-impossible mandate with the city's red tape and scarce resources.

"It was an unbelievable mess, and I don't blame him one bit for leaving," said Geoff Collins, a businessman who led a foundation revived by Batts to raise money for police.

In his first full year, murders and violent crime continued on recent declines, and Batts said the results surpassed his expectations. But in 2011, murders increased as part of a broader spike in both violent crime and property crime.

Batts had been unable to gain approval for a juvenile curfew that he sought, and was blocked on his plan for new gang injunctions — adding more zones that specific individuals could be prevented by a judge from visiting. He had redeployed officers from community policing spots to pursue violent crime, but had a budget strained to the max.

In a resignation letter addressed to the citizens of Oakland, Batts highlighted his accomplishments but lamented that "I found myself with limited control, but full accountability. The landscape has changed radically over the past two years with new and different challenges."

But there were also questions about his commitment. According to an article published in the East Bay Express after he left, Batts had often left early on Fridays for three-day weekends back in Long Beach.

Mining Batts' official calendar, the newspaper reported that he took days off without explanation and "routinely left early on Fridays so that he could enjoy long weekends," citing 54 such Fridays — not including holidays and approved time off. The newspaper asked Batts about the calendar; he did not comment. The police union derided him as a chief who "wasn't working that much."

Batts now says that he often worked from 9 a.m. to midnight Monday through Thursday and decided Friday afternoons were a good time to get away. He said he did go back to Long Beach on occasion — he says his father was ill — but also was frequently involved in weekend events in Oakland, including sitting in church pews and checking deployments outside Raiders football games.

East Coast challenge

It's the middle of the afternoon on a recent Thursday, and an elderly woman is hobbling down an Oakland street, stepping out into traffic without shoes on to confirm word that her 33-year-old grandson, Anthony Green, has been fatally shot in her home. Relatives rush over to help her the rest of the way as she demands information from behind police lines.

"Relax, Granny!" her son yells. "You know your heart ain't good!"

Two more will be killed within 24 hours. It's another day in Oakland, where homicides have actually risen since the late 1990s. As more than a dozen officers stand inside the crime scene tape, a police technician — a white, middle-aged woman — observes how upset the family is and hugs and consoles one of the relatives.

Amir Hasan, a 43-year-old who was friends with Green, said there's not much police can do about the violence. "It's going to take parents and society in general to hold each other to higher standards," he says.

Batts, meanwhile, is preparing to start over as the top cop in another crime-plagued city. He had been doing research with Harvard University and was set to begin teaching a course in the fall when he was first approached about whether he was interested in taking over the Sanford, Fla., Police Department in the wake of the killing of Trayvon Martin.

The opening in Baltimore came up amid those discussions.

"To be perfectly honest, I've been out of police work for a year. I miss the uniform, I miss the camaraderie, I miss the job, I miss what I've been doing since I was 14 years old," Batts said. "It feels extremely good to be back in it."

Batts has an eight-year contract in Baltimore that will pay him a salary of $190,000. It's a pay cut from his job in Oakland, where he took in about $250,000 a year. The City Council is expected to hold confirmation hearings for Batts next month.

In choosing him, Rawlings-Blake passed over internal candidates, including the agency's second-in-command for the past five years, Anthony Barksdale, as well as at least one other outside candidate. She said she was "looking for the best" and that Batts had a record of "reform and results."

Here, Batts' first steps have been reminiscent of his approach in past stops. His opening remarks at Baltimore City Hall included a line similar to the one he uttered the day he took the reins in Long Beach.

"To those that would hurt, to those who would beat, to those who would rob and cause pain to the weak, we're coming."

And as in Oakland, he visited the city on his own and drove through neighborhoods such as Bridgeview/Greenlawn and Federal Hill to talk to residents. Here, he said he witnessed a drug deal between two men who passed a "red balloon full of drugs."

The balloon observation was greeted with skepticism by some Baltimore cops, who say they're unfamiliar with drugs being sold that way.

Two Federal Hill residents who attended Batts' Citizens on Patrol walk are Oakland transplants and remember his tenure there. "Oakland's a tough city, probably tougher than Baltimore," says Joe Halperin. "We liked his approach. We thought he had terrific ideas."

Before taking in the sweeping view from Federal Hill park, Batts tells the crowd that he's impressed with the neighborhood. He says he might consider living there, eliciting cheers.

"This is a community that really works together," he tells them. He will not find such support in all corners of the city, but here the message resonates.

"It's time for us to dig a little deeper, and become one of the safest cities in America."

Life of Batts

1960 – Anthony W. Batts is born in Washington D.C.

1982 – Batts joins the Long Beach Police Department after graduation from California State's Long Beach campus.

1991 – At age 31, Batts becomes the youngest commander in agency history.

1992 – Riots following the beating of Rodney King affect Long Beach

1994 – Batts is selected to the Leadership Long Beach program and helps usher in Midnight Basketball program

1998 – With a dissertation covering police use of force, Batts earns a doctoral degree in public administration.

2002 – At age 42, Batts becomes the youngest-ever chief of the Long Beach Police Department

2007 – Batts briefly serves as city manager before returning to Long Beach police.

2009 – Oakland Police Department hires Batts as chief.

2011 – Batts becomes a finalist for top police spot in San Jose, but is not selected.

2011 – After resigning from the Oakland post, Batts joins Harvard as a researcher and lecturer

2012 – Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake hires Batts as police commissioner.

Anthony W. Batts

Title: Baltimore Police Commissioner Designee

Age: 52

Born: Washington, D.C.

Raised: Los Angeles, Calif.

Family: Three children

Experience: Chief, Oakland Police Department; chief, Long Beach Police Department; conducted research at Harvard University

Academic resume: Doctorate, public administration, University of La Verne; master's degree, business, University of Redlands; bachelor's degree, law enforcement administration, California State University, Long Beach