On the day of the first court hearing for six Baltimore police officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray, the city's former police commissioner joined panel examining racial unrest in the city.
Former Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts said Wednesday night that officers "took a knee" after the April riots following the death of Freddie Gray, allowing crime to spike because they felt a lack of support from commanders.
Batts, who was fired in July as homicides mounted following the unrest, said during a panel discussion at Mount St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg that he is one of several police chiefs who have been met by opposition from their rank-and-file as they tried to implement reform.
"They felt that I wasn't standing up for them," Batts said. "They want — anything they do — for the chiefs to stand up and say, 'My guys are right.'"
Washington, D.C., Police Chief Cathy Lanier recently faced a vote of no confidence from her officers, Batts noted, as she tried to implement changes in that department.
"Is this going to be the tactic, where police don't feel supported, so they allow the crime rate to go up, and the reformers lose their job?" Batts asked.
A spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the mayor "couldn't disagree more."
"Our officers have served admirably both during and following the unrest, as was again demonstrated with their management of [Wednesday's] peaceful demonstrations," spokesman Kevin Harris said. "Arrests are up, and officers are committed more than ever to making Baltimore a safer city."
The Police Department did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday night.
Gray, 25, suffered a fatal spinal cord injury in police custody in April, prompting protests and later riots that prompted officials to declare a citywide curfew and deploy the National Guard.
Six officers were charged in Gray's arrest and death; all have pleaded not guilty.
Homicides increased and arrests declined in the months after the unrest as some said officers were becoming more cautious. Arrests have increased since May but remain below last year's numbers.
Gene Ryan, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, said in May that police were more "more afraid of going to jail for doing their jobs properly than they are of getting shot on duty."
Batts didn't discuss the details of his firing on Wednesday but said it came after his contract was extended and he was given a raise in 2014. Under his contract, he will get $190,000 in severance plus a payout for unused leave. He had earned $201,700 a year.
Every metric the department tracks including crime statistics had gone in the right direction, he said, except one: the community's trust in police. Long-standing police policies and practices have caused "a visceral hatred for the uniform" among some residents, he said.
The tension between police and those residents in Baltimore had been mounting long before the riots, Batts said.
"You could see the riots coming," he said. "Those warnings were there. ... During the time I was there, I was trying to change the organization to better align it with the community."
Batts also addressed the racial split in the city, saying young, affluent white people are happy with their neighborhoods, but poor blacks on the east and west sides feel "trapped."
The fact that the heroin epidemic is so widespread in Baltimore at first bewildered Batts, he said, but he soon realized that some areas of the city are so impoverished that the drug trade "puts food on the table" and "keeps some neighborhoods moving."
"If we're able to remove that economy, what are we going to replace it with?" he asked. "Why is it there? Probably sustaining."