Davis rebuilds operations units, redeploys more than 150 officers as Baltimore hits 200th homicide

After dismantling special operations units throughout the Baltimore Police Department amid a patrol shortage and a high-profile gun squad scandal four months ago, Commissioner Kevin Davis has reassigned more than 150 police officers and supervisors back onto similar teams.

The 21 new “District Action Teams” — two for each of the city’s nine police districts, plus one each for the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor, the Monument Street corridor and the Tri-District area — began deploying this week amid the city’s violent crime crisis and intense debates about how to best address it.

The city marked its 200th homicide on Wednesday, a staggering pace putting Baltimore on track to reach or exceed the historic highs — on a per capita basis — of 344 and 318 homicides in 2015 and 2016, respectively. As of July 15, the date through which citywide data is available, robberies were up 15 percent and aggravated assaults were up 18 percent. Burglaries were up 7 percent.

The new operations teams will serve in uniform rather than plainclothes like many of their predecessors, and will report directly to district commanders rather than central command. They will not interact with informants directly or conduct surveillance, but will work with other intelligence and undercover units to target repeat violent offenders and provide commanders with critical response capabilities beyond the scope of patrol units, Davis said.

“A place like Baltimore needs police officers who are not tied to responding to calls for service, who can work the hours we need them to respond to violence,” Davis said. “They’ll be working in the neighborhoods that are plagued by violence the most, they’ll be deployed throughout the districts based on trends in violence, and they’ll be that presence — that uniformed, marked-car presence — that every neighborhood in Baltimore screams for.”

In all, seven lieutenants, 24 sergeants and 127 officers have been reassigned to the new teams. They were selected after “extensive interviews,” background checks and reviews of their disciplinary records, Davis said.

City Councilman Brandon Scott, chair of the public safety committee, has lambasted Mayor Catherine Pugh’s administration in recent weeks for not having a clear, comprehensive public safety strategy to address the violence.

“It is easy to point fingers and demand action, but I want to make sure that everybody understands that ... there is no single issue, no single way to reduce violence,” said Pugh, who plans to release her full “Comprehensive Violence Reduction Program” for review next month.

Pugh mentioned the District Action Teams on Wednesday among a slate of other proposals for addressing crime in the city, including a state commitment to provide more parole and probation officers in the city and grant funding to put computers in patrol cars.

Of the new operations teams, Scott said that “having the commanders, the local commanders, have resources that they can deploy to address the violence is a good idea” because there are things patrol officers simply can’t address — particularly when they are understaffed and constantly responding to calls.

But Scott said that “the devil is in the details,” and he wants to know more about the new teams, including how much autonomy the local commanders will have in deploying them and whether any one district will be losing a disproportionate number of patrol officers to them. Lt. Kenny Butler, vice president of the local police union, said that the teams could help but that Davis “has to beef up patrol first and foremost” before taking so many officers away for such operational deployments. He said patrol is hundreds of officers short.

Butler said there also isn’t enough clarity on how the teams will be deployed. He said it would be beneficial if they operated like the department’s “flex units” did when he worked patrol in the Southwest District two decades ago. Those units worked special operations one day and patrol the next, depending on where the need was, Butler said.

“When we got backed up in calls, our flex unit would have our back. And when we were short in patrol, our flex unit would say, ‘OK, you’re short in patrol, here’s two members of the flex unit for the day,’ ” Butler said. “If they have those marching orders, I think it will be a good thing.”

Davis said having the teams report directly to district commanders “will enhance accountability because I’ll have nine district commanders and nine district captains paying attention to their daily activities.”

He said the fact that they will serve in uniform and in marked police vehicles is a key difference between these teams and their predecessors, who were often referred to as “knockers” or “jump-out boys” for their covert and often-aggressive interactions with residents.

“The ‘knockers’ culture, the ‘jump-out boys’ culture, was just counterproductive to everything we have to do in the crime fight,” Davis said.

But, he said, Baltimore needs an “elite team” of officers who can be deployed to hot spots, interrupt violence in progress and work closely with parole and probation officers and department intelligence officers to go after guns, gangs and drugs.

The new teams are made up of many of the same officers who manned the operations units Davis dismantled in March after federal prosecutors indicted seven members of the elite plainclothes Gun Trace Task Force on racketeering charges, accusing them of robbing residents, filing false court paperwork and claiming unearned overtime. Two of those officers recently pleaded guilty; the others have pleaded not guilty.

The new teams also are taking members from the district operations units that remained after Davis dismantled the broader operations division, as well as patrol officers who have never served on specialized units before — despite previous acknowledgments from Davis and Pugh that patrol is woefully understaffed.

Davis said that the Police Department is “always robbing Peter to pay Paul” but that the new teams will be a “force multiplier to the patrol districts” rather than a burden.

“They’re not some unit that come into the patrol districts under the cloak of darkness,” he said.

Instead, he said, they will be highly visible in some of the most violent neighborhoods and will respond to 911 calls pertaining to serious crime.

Davis said there are currently three classes comprising 171 recruits moving through the police academy, and those new recruits will help backfill patrol once they earn their badges.

Anthony Barksdale, a former acting Baltimore police chief who led the department’s special operations teams in past years, including when violent crime was reduced significantly, said he believes Davis has good intentions with the new approach but may be hindering its effectiveness by requiring the units to work in uniform.

“If you are constantly in uniform, you are predictable. The whole deployment is predictable. And it’s going to be easy to defeat,” Barksdale said.

The element of surprise is necessary to take down Baltimore’s sophisticated drug organizations, he said.

“In uniform, they’re on to us as soon as we hit the block,” he said. “How the hell can you enforce against an organization that deploys lookouts four and five corners away when you are in uniform?”

Barksdale also questioned whether district commanders have the best operational minds for deploying such resources.

Davis said the new teams will collaborate with intelligence units and undercover officers, and he does not believe that their effectiveness will be limited. He said having the officers in uniform adds a layer of accountability that was missing in the past.

The dismantling of the plainclothes operations units earlier this year also followed a scathing Department of Justice report last summer that found unconstitutional policing was common in the city. Among other problems, Justice investigators found that a “disproportionate share of complaints” identified plainclothes officers as being “particularly aggressive and unrestrained in their practice of stopping individuals without cause and performing public, humiliating searches.”

One previous iteration of the plainclothes operations teams, known as the Violent Crime Impact Division, was credited with helping bring down killings several years ago, including in 2011, when there were 197 homicides — fewer than the total for 2017 reached Wednesday, with five months still on the calendar.

However, the division also was criticized as generating a disproportionate number of citizen complaints, and was reduced and rebranded by Davis’ predecessor, Anthony Batts.

Davis said he expects his critics to say this is just another rebranding, but it’s not.

“I threw the baby out with the bathwater and I started from scratch,” Davis said. “This time we’re going to do it right.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

krector@baltsun.com

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