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Batts sails through re-confirmation hearing

Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts sailed through a confirmation hearing on Wednesday, with City Council members and residents praising his accessibility and moves toward reform.

At this time last year, Batts faced questions from city leaders about his leadership amid a surge in shootings as his strategic plan remained in the works. Now, with violent and property crime down and a series of initiatives launched to address community concerns and improve police procedures, council members encouraged Batts to keep moving the department forward.

"What you're seeing is he's been able to build his team and put his fingerprint on the department," said Councilman William H. Cole IV. "We'll never be satisfied until we have a nonviolent city, but it's clear we're making progress."

The council first confirmed Batts in October 2012 to fulfill the six-year term of the previous commissioner, Frederick H. Bealefeld III. The re-appointment would give Batts a six-year term of his own.

The council will vote on the re-confirmation at a later time. Officials with City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young's office, which often counts votes, said they did not anticipate anyone would vote against Batts.

Batts, 54, said he took over a scandal-plagued agency that was "skilled in catching bad guys" — Bealefeld focused police efforts on "bad guys with guns" — but which he said was "disconnected from the community." Batts said his tenure has brought reductions in crime, a drop in citizen complaints, and improvements to technology.

"I am committed to continue to give every ounce of my effort to finishing what we started," Batts said. "There will be successes, setbacks, tragedies and triumphs. There will be times where we may fall. But we will get up, we will rise, and we will never take the focus off our mission."

Batts, a California native who previously led the Long Beach and Oakland police departments, said he had "come to love this city, its people, its neighborhoods" and gave a shout-out to the Orioles and Ravens, eliciting chuckles from the crowd.

In an unusual show of support, the police chiefs from Anne Arundel County, Baltimore County and Prince George's County, as well as the head of the local Drug Enforcement Administration office, attended the hearing. More than two dozen community members also attended to endorse him.

Batts still faces concerns about persistent crime and complaints from rank-and-file officers about work conditions. Underscoring those challenges, as the hearing was held, an 18-year-old man was killed in a double shooting in East Baltimore, the city's 27th homicide in the past 30 days.

After the hearing, police searched the crime scene, from a trash-filled alley behind the 2400 block of E. Madison St. to the road strewn with broken car-window glass. One resident, who declined to be named, questioned whether police were doing enough. "Our children are dying," she said.

Batts, who arrived in Baltimore with a reputation as a reform-minded police leader, has made a slew of changes to the force.

Acting on community complaints, he reduced the ranks of an aggressive plainclothes unit the previous administration had touted for helping to reduce gun violence. He implemented a "double-blind" photo lineup procedure, which he studied at Harvard University. And under his watch, the agency formed a "force investigation team" that investigates questionable cases involving use of force.

Also, in a major change yet to be implemented, a new agreement was brokered with the Fraternal Order of Police union that will allow top brass to increase the number of officers on patrol and require the purchase of additional squad cars. Such a move was previously thought to be cost-prohibitive.

Robert F. Cherry, president of the city police union, said officers appreciated recent pay raises, but he said there "is still a lot of work to do" to address officers' concerns about work schedules and changes to their pensions.

Batts, who makes $193,800 a year, said there is more to do — he is only "54 percent" through implementing recommendations contained within a strategic plan drafted by outside consultants and released in November 2013.

In 2011, Bealefeld's last full year running the Police Department, the city saw fewer than 200 homicides for the first time since the late 1970s.

Bealefeld objected to Batts' characterization of the department as deeply troubled under his tenure. "Our team worked our tails off, and sacrificed much, to make Baltimore safer and the department better," Bealefeld said in a statement. "We always tried to put the interests of the community first, and I am proud to have served with the best officers in this country."

Last year, Batts' first full year at the helm of the agency, homicides rose to 233 and non-fatal shootings jumped for the first time in six years. Robberies also rose last year, the third year of increases, state data show.

As of Wednesday, homicides were down about 6 percent compared to last year. As of last week, the most recent data available show shootings were down 16 percent compared to last year, and robberies were down 15 percent. Total crime was down 9 percent, the statistics show.

Still, tensions continue in Baltimore's neighborhoods, and at a series of town hall forums held this year, residents cited police brutality as a top concern. The deaths of two men who died in Baltimore police custody in 2013 and 2012 continue to stoke protests even though officers have been cleared of wrongdoing.

Batts created two independent panels to look into the deaths, though that did little to assuage frustrations of the families of the men who died. Both have sued the Police Department.

At the confirmation hearing, Batts noted that violent and property crime continue to trend downward. But he acknowledged that statistics don't tell the full story.

"It's one thing when you drop crime stats," he told reporters after the hearing. "If you drop crime stats and the community's no better than it was before, then I don't call that success."

Supporters speak of Batts' personal touch. For example, rumors recently surfaced that the agency planned to eliminate or strip down its neighborhood services unit, composed of officers who are liaisons to residents.

Community leaders were livid, and Batts summoned them to an evening meeting at police headquarters where he vowed that such a move would never occur on his watch, according to Jack Baker, head of the Southern District Police Community Relations Council, who attended the meeting.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke also noted how Batts "actually personally" fought crime, a reference to Saturday when he encountered a shooting in progress and arrested the suspect.

Batts said his goal is to improve the city's image, saying he wants to "make sure people understand what a good city this is."

"I want to make sure … that we bring hope, and we bring business and the city continues to grow, and people see the positive side of Baltimore."

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