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Batts elaborates on comments that Baltimore suffers from '1950s racism'

Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts appears in an interview with C-SPAN's Q&A program, and talks about race issues in the city in this short outtake. (Courtesy C-SPAN)

In an interview set to air on C-SPAN Sunday, Baltimore Commissioner Anthony W. Batts elaborated on comments made a week earlier that he believes the city suffers from "1950s racism" and is more divided than other cities where he has worked.

Batts first brought up the issue when speaking in Phoenix before a White House task force studying policing. He brings up the idea again in the C-SPAN interview, where he is interviewed for an hour and touches on a number of topics - including acknowledging that he finally gave in and watched Season 1 of "The Wire." The interview airs at 8 p.m. Sunday.

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In Southern California, where Batts grew up and was with the Long Beach Police Department for more than 25 years, "we talked about race openly ... because there was so much diversity," he said. His next job in Oakland exposed him to a "very progressive area" that had "moved beyond race."

"When I came to Baltimore, it was like going back in time," Batts says in the interview. "It's about about black and white racism in that city. It's all the things you dealt with in the 1960s."

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He said Baltimore has "old money ... that's been around for a long time" and "very affluent, very beautiful areas, but you also have areas that are very challenged."

"Part of my job is to get those different communities speaking to each other, get them at the table having open and authentic conversations," he said.

Batts referred to a meeting he had that week in which he said the participants wanted to talk about police excessive force and training of officers, which gave way to a discussion about poverty, schools, and "what the responsiblity of the community is as a whole."

"I was very happy with it," he said.

Batts declined to comment when The Baltimore Sun sought clarification about his comments about racism in the city, but through a spokesman said he is trying to increase dialogue among city residents.

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

In that speech, he told panel members that police leaders need to fight racism and take on social justice. As a police chief, he said, he has a "bully pulpit" to start conversations about "racism, sexism, literacy, mentoring, mental illness, character building."

In the C-SPAN interview, Batts defends the Police Department from recent attention on misconduct, saying such complaints and lawsuits are down significantly.

A Sun investigation found that since 2011 the city has paid out nearly $6 million in court judgments and settlements in lawsuits alleging police brutality and other misconduct. The payouts for the three years prior totaled $7.25 million, The Daily Record reported in 2010 citing figures from the city law department. Batts said there's been a "huge" drop in use of force and discourtesy complaints, which he said are both down about 50 percent in 2014.

"In actuality," Batts said, "we're going in the opposite direction of those issues."

He also says that he has "tried to talk about" the problem of African American males being shot by African American males, but "basically what I got back was, until we get the homicide rate down, you don't get to come to the table" to talk about the issue.

But he also says the media focuses too much on homicide rates, which he calls "a mistake" and one-dimensional. In 2013, the most recent year for which national data is available, Baltimore had the fifth-highest murder rate among cities with 100,000 people or more.

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"You get a bad picture of Baltimore, but Baltimore has a lot of beautiful sites, it has a lot of beautiful locations where you don't have crime and you don't have the fear of your life," Batts says. "But when you have these shootings that permeate the front page of the newspaper, that's the perception of businesses or people who want to move to our city."

Asked multiple times about "The Wire," Batts, who said before he had never seen the show, said he sat down one day in June and watched some episodes.

"On a boring, summer day when I was home stuck in a very hot house, I went on HBO," he said. "I looked at the first season. That was enough for me."

Later when asked about the effect of the show - which went off the air in 2008 - on the police force, he said the show was a driving force behind changes such as the agency's new logo.

"They don't want the connection to 'The Wire,'" he said. "This is a new day for this Police Department. It starts with me and goes all the way down and permeates the organization ... they don't want that anymore."

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