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Police commissioner defends patrol strategy amid violence

Baltimore police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts on Tuesday defended his patrol strategy amid record violence while also saying all prisoner transport drivers have been retrained to prevent injuries in the wake of Freddie Gray's death.

The commissioner spoke to City Council members during a Public Safety Committee hearing, at which he acknowledged dramatic increases to the city's homicide and nonfatal shooting counts. He said commanders are addressing holes in coverage stemming in part from a new deployment schedule.

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"We anticipated a year of growth, a year of evolution," he said. "We had some hiccups at the midnight shift when we should have had more officers out there."

Beginning in January, patrol officers went from five eight-hour work days to four 10-hour days. The shift was part of a new union contract approved last year, and it coincided with giving officers a 13 percent raise across the board to better compete with other state agencies. To pay for the positions, 212 vacant officer positions were eliminated.

The raises and new work hours were sold to the public as a way to decrease overtime and improve patrols because the new contract also offered commanders more flexibility in how they could deploy patrol officers.

The new contract allows police to send more officers out during high-crime periods and reduce deployments when less violence typically occurred. Overtime would be reduced, police and union officials said. Police would be more visible in high-crime areas, Batts had said.

But violence continues to lay siege to the city. Two people were killed and three people were wounded in shootings Tuesday. The homicides followed a record 43 people killed in May — the most in more than 40 years. The number of Baltimore homicides this year — 119 — is more than 40 percent higher than last year's figure to date.

"Right now we're putting all officers on the streets," Batts said. "Not just in cars but in posts."

He said staffing numbers have been hurt by 367 vacancies that include injured and suspended officers. Police are working with federal partners on drug and weapon investigations. Some officers have doubled up in cars — unusual for Baltimore police — to help deal with the cellphone-holding crowds taking video of officers during routine calls.

One area where the new shifts have worked: reducing overtime, Batts said. Overtime that doesn't include staffing protests and riots accounts for $32 million, just $400,000 more this fiscal year than last, city figures show.

In response to questions from The Baltimore Sun, Baltimore police union president Gene Ryan criticized the department's implementation of the new patrol strategy. He said it is not staffed the way it was designed, and said the union has offered to help fix issues.

"If steps are not taken now to fix the issues with staffing, training, and the utilization of patrol resources, this will lead to a catastrophic failure," Ryan said in a statement.

Batts also told the council committee that the department is still working to equip all 24 of its transport vans with cameras that record and other upgrades that would cost about $13,000 each. Some police vans have cameras, as was the case in the van that drove Gray, but they are just for drivers to monitor prisoners. In the case of Gray, the police wagon's camera was broken.

Baltimore police officers involved in Gray's arrest are accused of violating department policy by not placing him in a seat belt in the back of the police transport van. Gray suffered a fatal spinal injury after he was handcuffed, outfitted with leg irons and placed into the van on his stomach, according to Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby.

Batts told council members that all wagon drivers have been retrained and know first aid. He said he would like to replace the city's current vans with larger trucks that look like ambulances because they have more room. But the cost of such a switch hasn't been discussed, he said.

Council member Nick J. Mosby suggested that police look into outfitting the vans with GPS while Councilman Brandon M. Scott said privatizing transport should be considered so drivers cannot be influenced by arresting officers. Batts said he was against privatization but said it would be considered.

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Community activist Kinji Scott, who spoke during the hearing, listened to the updates and called for Batts to "move on."

"It is disturbing when I hear the police commissioner give us the same recycled crime plan," he said. "The bottom line is when you're not arresting criminals and you're not arresting murderers, of course the murder rate will go up."

Councilman Warren Branch called Batts a responsive commander.

"I still want to give him a chance," said Branch, the committee chairman.

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This story has been updated to correct a comparison of Baltimore's homicide totals for 2015. The homicide totals for this year are more than 40 percent higher than last year at the same time.

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