Batts to address police recruits; selects new training academy director

Batts to address police recruits; selects new training academy director
Maj. Joseph Smith (Courtesy Baltimore police)
Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts replaced the head of the department’s training academy Monday, as the agency seeks to address safety lapses and restore public confidence following the accidental shooting last week of a trainee.

Batts returned former academy director Maj. Joseph Smith to the job. He replaces Maj. Eric Russell, who was suspended last week after the training accident. Police say an instructor mistakenly fired his service weapon and struck a University of Maryland police trainee in the head, critically wounding him.

Smith, a 25-year veteran, had been working on an initiative to improve crime reporting. He will now assist the Maryland Police and Correctional Training Commission as it reviews the Feb. 12 shooting at the abandoned Rosewood Center psychiatric hospital in Owings Mills.

Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi called Smith the “perfect person” for the job.

“He is so attentive to detail,” Guglielmi said. “He has professional experience not only working in the police academy but in internal affairs, and he also served as a firearm instructor.”

Smith takes over after a year of change and turmoil in the training division.

Russell became head of the academy in August after an abrupt move from his post at the helm of the Southwestern District. Police have said Russell was not present at Rosewood and did not know about the exercise there. A spokesman said Russell remains suspended pending the results of an internal investigation.

Russell replaced John A. King, a former police chief in Montgomery County, who held the position for just six months. King, an outsider who was brought in by then-Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III in an effort to boost credibility, resigned in June.

Police union President Robert F. Cherry said the training division needs more support from top brass. He called Russell a “good street cop” who “did the best with what he had.”

Cherry said the department needs to direct more resources toward training.

“You need someone who knows how to work with recruits,” he said. “You need someone who has a background in education and training. It’s going to be a lot of work.”

Russell could not be reached for comment.

The shooting of the University of Maryland officer, who had been training with Baltimore police, followed a series of missteps that experts say ran counter to recognized training standards.

Top command staff were unaware of the training session. An instructor brought a loaded weapon to the exercises, at which trainees were practicing “active shooter” scenarios with paint-cartridge pistols.

Sources have told The Baltimore Sun that investigators are exploring whether an instructor was horsing around and not participating in a drill when he accidentally reached for his service weapon instead of a clearly marked paint-bullet gun.

Police have identified the alleged shooter as William Scott Kern, 46, an 18-year veteran. Maryland State Police and the Baltimore County state’s attorney will determine whether Kern, 46, will face criminal charges.

All trainees present at the time were released from the academy and offered counseling.

Police suspended six academy officials, including Russell, following the shooting and suspended training operations until this week.

On Tuesday, Batts and Deputy Commissioners John Skinner and Jerry Rodriguez are expected to “outline his expectations and reaffirm that all policies and procedures, specifically those centered around employee safety, are strictly adhered to,” police said in a statement.

Batts called Smith “a demonstrated leader” who is “committed to the highest levels of integrity and professional standards.”

“As we investigate the facts of this horrific tragedy, it's imperative that we put our best leaders in front to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again in the history of the Baltimore Police Department,” Batts said in a statement.

Batts will introduce Smith to recruits on Tuesday.

L. Douglas Ward, director of the public safety leadership program at the Johns Hopkins University, said the presence of new leadership sends a stabilizing message to recruits and training instructors.

“One of the things the organization needs to do is to send a clear message not only to the employees but to elected officials and the public that ‘We’re going to get on top of this,’” Ward said. “A fresh set of eyes can also look at things objectively to say, ‘Well why do you do it that way?’”

Smith will be expected to help Baltimore police reach a goal set more than a year ago of hiring 300 new officers to fill spots left vacant by attrition and suspensions.

Typically, three classes of 40 to 60 recruits train at the academy each year, including trainees from smaller departments, Guglielmi said.

Smith’s resume also includes technical and administrative projects and duties, Guglielmi said. He worked with the city to establish an online crime reporting system that will launch soon.

He has also been in charge of police communications and helped streamline the emergency dispatch center, making it easier for police to retrieve recordings of 911 calls.

He was in charge of security at police headquarters and fleet services, Guglielmi said, and he also earned respect throughout the department by helping the family of an injured colleague.

When three bullets struck Officer Jerome Shaurette in a 2009 shootout, Smith took in Shaurette’s son, Guglielmi said, folding the boy into his own family and taking him on vacations while Shaurette recovered.