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City police chief addresses confusion after Freddie Gray case

Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts said Wednesday that he's trying to clear up "confusion" about the legal risks officers face, amid a sharp decline in the number of arrests since six on the force were charged in the death of Freddie Gray.

He said the U.S. attorney general and Baltimore state's attorney's offices plan to retrain officers this week. He said officers have asked if they could face charges for making a mistake during an arrest or for unwittingly working with another officer who did something that may be illegal.

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"There's a lot of levels of confusion," Batts told reporters at City Hall.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said that police are "examining" whether fewer arrests are a factor behind the rash of violence since Gray's death in April. The 25-year-old died a week after sustaining a severed spinal cord and other injuries while in police custody.

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This month has been the city's deadliest in 16 years with 36 homicides.

But arrests have plunged. Through the first half of May, police have made 828 arrests — fewer than half of the 1,909 made during the same time last year.

The mayor said that "a lot of reasons" are contributing to the crime spike and that she's certain Batts will find a way to curb the bloodshed.

"Every time there's been a surge in violence before, we've been able to get on top of it and bring crime down," Rawlings-Blake said. "I'm confident we're going to do that again."

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Batts, joined by other members of the city's top police brass, appeared before the council's budget committee for a previously scheduled hearing. The hearing, to discuss the department's proposed $444 million budget for the coming fiscal year, was overshadowed by the events of recent weeks.

Councilwoman Helen Holton, who chairs the budget committee, quizzed Batts about his plans to improve police-community relations.

"We hear a lot about community policing and how we're doing it," Holton said. "Oftentimes, we're hearing from communities: 'Whatever happened to officers walking the streets and really participating.'"

Batts said he views Gilmor Homes — the site of Gray's arrest — as "ground zero" for improving the relationships. He noted that he has instituted a requirement that officers on patrol leave their vehicles periodically during their shifts and engage residents and business owners.

Batts said he went on patrol on a recent night with officers in the housing project, striking up conversations with families sitting on their front stoops.

"There are a lot of good people in Gilmor Homes who want to see the police officers there," Batts said. "As we push forward, we are going to become part of that community. We're going to listen to the community and engage them and become involved."

The commissioner said he is working with Johns Hopkins researchers and various nonprofit groups, such as Associated Black Charities, to find ways for officers to be a bigger part of building healthy neighborhoods. That involves addressing a variety of issues, such as mental illness and truancy, he said.

Batts also pledged to equip some officers with body cameras by Dec. 1, under a pilot program to test hardware and software. And he described attempts to recruit Baltimoreans to join the force, including visiting barber shops and military bases, and asking officers to pose for pictures to send to their high schools.

The commissioner has made a number of efforts to reach out to constituencies in recent days.

Batts appeared Tuesday before the Fraternal Order of Police and apologized to officers for failing to follow his "intuition," which he said contributed to some members of the force being hurt during the unrest.

Six officers have been charged criminally in Gray's death on charges ranging from second-degree murder to reckless endangerment and misconduct in office. Defense attorneys have criticized the prosecution, and union officials have said the officers aren't responsible for Gray's death.

State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby contends that Gray was illegally arrested because officers failed to establish probable cause. Officers allegedly ignored Gray's pleas for medical help as he was being transported to the Western District police station.

Since the case, some police officers have said they feel hesitant on the job under intense public scrutiny.

Batts said that when he took the job in 2012 he found "a police agency that was really lacking in training on a lot of levels." He said he focused on training in officer-involved shootings, foot pursuits and other situations in which officers are likely to come in contact with suspects. He noted that excessive-force cases have since declined 40 percent.

Batts, who makes about $200,000 a year, has been appointed to serve until 2020.

He said his command didn't put as much time into crowd control training as he would have wanted.

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.

"They want to know that what they do is valued within the city," Batts said of officers. "They want to know that when they stand tall and take bricks that they are appreciated by me and by the structure and citizens."

Earlier this week, the commissioner told community leaders and elected officials in a letter that he had reassigned "several veteran leaders" to the city's Western District. Among them are a new commander and captain. He also said he wants the officers to keep "a visible and consistent presence" in the community.

Batts has said police are struggling to stop violence in West Baltimore. Officers have been routinely surrounded by dozens of people, video cameras and hostility while performing basic police work in the weeks since Gray's death.

Homicides reached a low in 2011 when the number killed dropped to 197. That was down from more than 300 a year throughout the 1990s.

So far this year, at least 109 people have been killed and 205 have been shot.

City Councilman Brandon Scott said the city should focus on stopping violent repeat offenders, not on boosting the incarceration rate. He said he does not want the city to "go back to mass arrests."

"Arrests being down by themselves does not necessarily trigger an alarm for me," Scott said. "If you look at the history of Baltimore, some years when we had extremely high numbers of arrests, we had extreme number of homicides as well. If you look at 2011 and the record-low homicides, arrests were down."

Meanwhile, the Mayor's Office on Criminal Justice has seen a number of departures. Four top officials on Rawlings-Blake anti-crime team have left in recent weeks.

Rawlings-Blake said Wednesday that she wants to improve the office.

"We have an opportunity to be dynamic and comprehensive," she said. "I would like to see it be faster and be a real leader in the community when it comes to the coordinated efforts that we have when it comes to criminal justice. I'm confident that we're going to get there."

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Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

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