Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts apologized to the city's officers Tuesday night, saying he put them in harm's way during the Freddie Gray unrest last month.
The Baltimore Sun has obtained an audio recording of his comments, which he made during a meeting with members of the police union.
Batts said he failed to follow his intuition that problems were coming and officers got hurt as a result. He concluded his comments, which lasted about four minutes, by urging officers to stay focused on fighting crime.
"We had a 9-year-old kid shot yesterday by these knuckleheads, gangsters, thugs, whatever you want to call them," he said. "We have innocent people getting shot on the streets of Baltimore.
"People think we're down. People are giving up on us," Batts said. "I mean this with all my heart: We need to show how f-----g good we are. ... I stand ready to lead you out of this."
Batts spoke four weeks after the city erupted in riots. On the day of Gray's funeral, people threw rocks at police and looted and burned businesses. Officials said more than 100 police officers were injured.
The riots ended after a day, but street violence in Baltimore has surged in the weeks since, with 41 people killed and dozens more shot and wounded.
During the same period, department figures show, officers have made less than half as many arrests as before the unrest. That has led to questions about whether they are easing up on the job.
Gene Ryan, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said he invited Batts to speak to members. The union is conducting what Ryan has called an unprecedented review of the decision-making the day of the riots, including whether officers were properly equipped and the types of orders they were given.
Ryan said he believes many officers want the commissioner to be replaced, but he wants to complete the review.
"We'll make a decision which way we'll go then," Ryan said. He praised Batts for appearing and speaking at the meeting.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake also lauded Batts for appearing and for the "frank" comments he made.
"It's very clear the relationship between the commissioner and the rank-and-file is strained," she said. "The commissioner is working very hard to repair that relationship. I think it's essential for the department to continue to move forward that they have that ability to have those open dialogues, to get things off their chests, for the commissioner to say how he feels to the rank-and-file officers."
The mayor described the challenge confronting Batts.
"He has a dual role in the sense that he has to be the leader of the department in good times and challenging times and he also has an obligation to the community," she said. "It's often challenging to balance on that tight rope. I commend him for doing the outreach he's done in the community and also having frank and tough conversations with the FOP."
Batts told the officers that he took time during the holiday weekend to "look at myself and things that I wasn't understanding, nor was I hearing."
"I want to come here and tell you guys that I think I let you guys down," he said. "I say that with a humble heart, I say that with honesty, and I say it coming from my heart."
Batts said he "saw this stuff coming." He was apparently referring to the unrest.
"In my intuition, I didn't stay with it," he said. "People said, 'We haven't had a riot here in 40 years,' and my intuition told me I should've went another direction. And by not going another direction, my guys got hurt. By not going with my intuition, my guys got hurt. By not going with my intuition, I put you guys in a tough position."
Reached for comment Wednesday, Batts wrote in an email that he has tried to improve police training since coming to Baltimore in 2012, and the local demonstrations that followed the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Eric Garner in New York and others had given officers experience with crowd control.
But he wrote that he had yet to implement "mobile field force" training, which prepares departments to handle "aggressive crowds."
"It is true that officers have felt vulnerable, frustrated, hurt, and off-balance," Batts wrote. "It is imperative that officers feel they are appreciated, are assured that people care about them and the difference they make in our city every day. Central to my job as a leader is to ensure that our officers know this."
Batts told reporters last week he had experienced "seven or eight" riots in his police career. He started reaching out to other police agencies to secure extra resources in the days leading up to the first large-scale protest downtown.
"There were good things, there were bad things," he told reporters. "There are things we can grow and learn from."
Some have said officers were told to "stand down," and Ryan said that will be part of the union's review.
The officers "feel like they have no control. Everything was thrust upon them," Ryan said last week. "We want them to have a voice and feel like they have a little bit of control."
Batts told the officers Tuesday night that he understood their frustrations.
"You guys have been f----d so many different ways, excuse my language, whether it's through your retirement, whether through pay, whether through so many times you have been screwed around time and time again, and you believe I let you down again too and that I screwed you. I didn't try to screw you.
"From day one when I walked in, officers' safety has been job one for me. But I got my guys hurt and I've got to own that."
Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.