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Baltimore Police suffered from culture of officers ‘trying to be badasses,’ former Commissioner Batts says

Former Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts gave a blistering account of disfunction in the department on Tuesday to a panel investigating police corruption, describing structural problems that span from City Hall all the way down to officers on the streets.
Former Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts gave a blistering account of disfunction in the department on Tuesday to a panel investigating police corruption, describing structural problems that span from City Hall all the way down to officers on the streets. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

Former Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts told a state police reform commission that the Baltimore Police Department was “one of the most battered police organizations I’ve seen in my career” and that he believed officers were too concerned with “trying to be badasses" instead of serving the community.

Batts' comments were perhaps his most extensive since being fired in 2015, following the death of Freddie Gray, the related uprising and spike in crime that followed. He’s kept a low public profile and mostly refrained from talking about Baltimore.

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But he issued searing critiques of the police department and the city’s political environment in testimony before the Commission to Restore Trust in Policing, which was created to investigate the roots of the Gun Trace Task Force scandal that revealed years of unchecked corruption.

“I think the city itself, from my perspective, just my opinion, does not have respect for the position of commissioner or chief of police,” Batts said. “I believe they think that position is a throwaway position where you have a chief come in for six months and get fired, or two years and get fired. So what your staff understands is, I can wait you out. You’re only going to be here for a half a minute, I don’t have to do what you’re going to say."

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Batts also bemoaned political interference, saying that there were councilmembers who tried to influence hiring, promotions and even discipline. He did not identify any by name, but alluded to one particular case that drew attention from City Council President Brandon Scott when he was a district councilman.

“You have councilpeople with fingers deep in that organization,” Batts said.

Batts said he did not recall any interactions with or knowledge of the officers charged in the Gun Trace Task Force scandal, and had not paid attention to coverage of the case until preparing for his testimony before the commission.

Batts came to Baltimore in 2012, after a career spent in Long Beach and a stint as commissioner of the Oakland Police Department. He sought to be a reform commissioner, creating a blueprint for the organization designed to stave off a federal consent decree.

But Batts said he ran into trouble with an array of broken systems.

“I thought the vast majority of the systems in Baltimore Police Department were broken. It was one of the most battered police organizations I’ve seen in my career, and it would take building it from ground up,” Batts said. “I think the officers are some of the most courageous I’ve seen in my career, but a lot of the systems were broken.”

“I thought the vast majority of the systems in Baltimore Police Department were broken. It was one of the most battered police organizations I’ve seen in my career, and it would take building it from ground up."


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Batts pointed to outdated policies and technology, but also said the agency had a problematic culture.

“I think it was a culture of people trying to be badasses instead of a police department focused on community policing,” he said, adding that things that would shock people in other organizations were brushed off as “that’s just Baltimore.”

Batts said he anticipated having only two years to implement new policies before he expected to be pushed out, saying Baltimore was a “hyperpolitical” city.

He also said that the police union was not the type of partner he had experienced in other cities, and that the discipline process didn’t give enough control to the commissioner.

One of the members of the state reform commission, Sean Malone, noted supervisors and former commissioners who have spoken to the commission said they had no knowledge of the corruption that was taking place. He asked how that could be.

Batts said he believed his job was to set policy and a broad vision, and ran down a litany of challenges he faced from his first day, including the killing of Anthony Anderson, a killing after the Baltimore Ravens Super Bowl parade downtown, and the shooting of a recruit during a training exercise, among many others.

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“If you’re not picking up from what I’m saying there were so many significant things going on in that organization, so many significant things that were broken,” Batts said. “Where do you start?”

Gray’s death in April 2015 came amid a wave of police killings that drew national outcry — a second wave has been playing out this year across the country.

Batts made a cryptic comment about the riots: “I don’t want to go into a lot of hearsay, but I’ll say there’s no reason why that American city was on fire, no reason why damage should’ve been there like it was.”

Batts said then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she would stand by him, but crime spiked to record levels in the ensuing months and he began to lose the force.

“She and I had a conversation, she basically [told] me that she had faith in me still — we both knew what really took place under circumstances, and the best thing we can do is be successful,” Batts recalled. “The officers started to shut down; they were angry at me, they were angry at the state’s attorney, angry at media. They wanted me to stand up for them and say those officers didn’t do anything wrong in Freddie Gray issue.”

He was fired in July of that year.

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