Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts talks about the changes in the Western district to combat the high volume of shootings. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
Police are struggling to stop violence in West Baltimore, where officers have been routinely surrounded by dozens of people, video cameras and hostility while doing basic police work since the death of Freddie Gray, Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts said Wednesday.
The Western District, the site of Gray's arrest and the epicenter of the protests and rioting that followed his death, has seen the majority of the city's recent shootings and homicides, which are coming faster than they have in eight years.
In response, Batts said, police are taking measures to re-establish relationships with West Baltimore neighborhoods still angry over Gray's death April 19, Batts said.
Police have sent in commanders from other districts with experience and contacts in West Baltimore. Backup officers are being sent to routine calls to help protect officers.
"Officers tell me and their supervisors, any time they pull up to respond to a call, they have 30 to 50 people surrounding them," Batts said. "We have to send in multiple units just to do basic police work, which says we have to work on community engagement."
The comments were Batts' first on the state of his embattled agency and the surge in shootings and homicides that began about the time Gray was arrested and fatally injured.
In a 35-minute discussion with reporters, the commissioner also touched on his handling of the riots that immediately followed Gray's death. He said officers responded to an unprecedented situation with extreme bravery but also some hesitation, and said the agency has much to learn in the days ahead.
At least 19 people were shot Tuesday and Wednesday, pushing the city's nonfatal shootings more than 70 percent above the count at the same point last year. Baltimore's 98 homicides this year are 42 percent higher than the same time last year.
In the Western District — an area of three square miles — 22 people have been killed this year, compared with 21 all of last year. Nonfatal shootings in West Baltimore are up 175 percent, according to the latest police data.
Sandtown-Winchester, where Gray was arrested April 12, has seen frequent gunfire.
Police say officers were patrolling the neighborhood when Gray saw them and took off running. They soon caught him, put on handcuffs and leg shackles, and placed him in a transport van. Gray suffered a severe spinal injury and died a week later.
Outrage over his arrest and treatment — police have acknowledged that officers denied several requests by Gray for medical attention — led to a week of protests. On the day of Gray's funeral, riots erupted, with arson and looting.
Batts said police are trying to investigate killings in West Baltimore, but have been slowed by the large crowds that often surround them.
"It makes it very difficult to follow up on violence that takes place there," he said. "Clearly, they're not holding back. They're getting to those locations and getting surrounded. You have many citizens with hand-held cameras that they're sticking in the faces of officers, an inch off the officer's face."
Batts said police do not want to cause a "bigger issue" by sending in backup, but they want to "make sure the officers are safe and citizens are safe."
That description of events did not sit well with Deray McKesson, a community activist and organizer prominent on social media.
"What Batts is doing is trying to use fear to take the focus away from the intense violence that the police have inflicted on the communities of Baltimore as long as any of us can remember," he said. "What Batts is worried about is that people are more aware and more willing to hold police accountable in the Western District."
McKesson said West Baltimore residents unified during protests over Gray's death, finding out they share common experiences in dealings with police. They no longer feel isolated and powerless against a police force that McKesson said has routinely abused African-Americans.
"It's a scary day in America when a chief of police says people are watching us and we can't do our jobs," he said.
Police have sent Lt. Col. Melvin Russell, the officer Batts has charged with strengthening police bonds with churches and neighborhoods, into West Baltimore to help "bring the temperature down."
Top-ranking deputy commissioners are responding to West Baltimore shootings and crime scenes, both to underscore the importance of making arrests and to monitor interactions between officers and residents.
Grass-roots meetings are being held with neighborhood leaders, Batts said.
"We have to build long-term relationships over there, and it has to start today," Batts said. "We have to work our way through those areas, and it's going to be a new normal. Clearly because of the anger over there, there needs to be a lot of work done in that area."
Batts said his interactions with residents have confirmed for him that Baltimore's problems go beyond alleged police mistreatment. Residents want neighborhood health centers to help them deal with diabetes, job training and recruitment programs, more recreation centers and a return of the Police Athletic Leagues for youth.
Batts said parents want a "safe zone" for their children. He said he doesn't have funding to restart sports leagues, but he is considering putting officers in parks and recreation centers to interact with kids.
McKesson said the city needs to address "structural inequity." He brought up the same needs Batts said he has heard from community members: more recreation centers and sports leagues.
Deputy Commissioner Kevin Davis said police training academies need to start teaching officers how to say hello, just as it teaches officers the basics of policing.
"We have to engage in a better way with our community," he said.
Critics have questioned the way police commanders handled the rioting of April 27. Activists say police heightened tensions at Mondawmin Mall by responding to a protest involving high school students with officers in riot gear. Officers have said commanders ordered them to stand down while people threw rocks and bricks.
Batts said no high-level commanders gave orders to stand down.
"There was no one in my command who gave a stand-down order," Batts said. "So as we go back and research and try to figure out where that came from, we all have had a conversation that we never gave that direction at any point in time.
"I think what probably really did happen, because you had inexperienced people in some of those positions [in the field], they hesitated for a second because they were figuring out how to get the job done. It wasn't that they were incompetent. It's the first time they've lived through these things. They had to make crucial decisions on information in a situation that they had never been in."
Batts said 168 officers were injured. One sustained a head injury; others sustained broken bones or lost teeth.
He said officers he visited in hospitals told him they wanted to "go back out there."
"My guys had the hearts of lions," Batts said. "They stood tall."
Batts has said police were "outnumbered and outflanked." He said Wednesday that the department had expected problems and had been making calls the week before to line up extra resources.
"I usually try to have twice the number of estimated protesters," Batts said. After a meeting with chiefs of police across the state and canceling days off for his officers, Batts said, he was able to secure 1,000 city officers and 200 from outside the city.
"I would've liked to have had more numbers," he said.
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As the week went on, Batts said he made calls to the chiefs of police in Washington, Philadelphia and New York City. Along with the National Guard deployment, the number of officers eventually swelled to 6,000.
Batts said he believed police got better at commanding resources as the week went on.