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Amid law enforcement scrutiny, a rising black voice enters top ranks of Baltimore's police union

Lt. Kenny Butler was just sworn in as highest ranking black officer in Baltimore FOP history. Who is he?

In the aftermath of last year's civil unrest in Baltimore, one of the most forceful defenders of the city's police officers was a black lieutenant from Baltimore who maintained that most do their jobs with integrity, even as he acknowledged a history of racial disparities.

Lt. Kenny Butler, the longtime president of the Vanguard Justice Society, an organization for black and other minority officers, openly slammed then-Commissioner Anthony Batts, critcizing orders that officers "not engage" violent protesters and Batts' comment that cops "took a knee" in the months that followed. He joined a chorus of voices questioning State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby's decision to charge six officers in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray.

Many in the Police Department took note of Butler's outspokenness, and last month elected him first vice president of the local Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3 — making him the highest-ranking black officer in the organization's history. He resigned his Vanguard position to assume his new role during a swearing-in ceremony Monday night.

"From what was told to me," Butler said, "a lot of people who voted for me said they just want someone who will stand up for the rank-and-file member, because they remembered what I did when Batts was here."

The election of Butler, 51, comes amid heightened scrutiny in Baltimore and nationwide of law enforcement and the role race plays in policing, and challenges the deeply rooted reputation of the local FOP as an old-boys club dominated by white men.

It comes months after the U.S. Justice Department found systemic discrimination within the Police Department, and after Butler's predecessor was disciplined for sending an internal email suggesting that protesters at a Maryland Fraternal Order of Police event were "thugs" involved in violence.

Butler said he wants to be "a voice for the voiceless, because you have a lot of officers who are just suffering in silence who feel like they have no recourse, that they can't get a problem heard."

He also wants it clearly understood that he now represents all officers, not just minority officers.

Many who know Butler well describe him as a calm, measured voice in city policing.

"There is no doubt in my mind moving forward that it's going to be good for the union," said Lodge 3 President Lt. Gene Ryan.

Ryan envisions Butler helping him lobby legislators in Annapolis as the union continues to fight efforts to change key protections for officers who face disciplinary action.

"It does show that we are diverse," Ryan said. "The membership decides who sits in those seats. It's not me. It's not any one race. ... We're not the old white man's club like some people would like to say."

Commissioner Kevin Davis, who succeeded Batts last year, said Butler "just kicked open a door that's been shut for far too long."

Davis said he looks forward to working with Butler, including in implementing reforms that will be required under the city's pending consent decree with the Justice Department.

"Perception is always reality," he said. "I think it's good for citizens in this city to see that FOP leadership is finally reflecting the demographics of the city."

City Councilman Brandon Scott, vice chair of the public safety committee, said Butler's presence within the FOP will be a "big help to those of us who are trying to help the old guard understand the need for change" in policing.

"To me, Kenny is breaking through that glass ceiling," Scott said. "And while people have these conceptions about all people involved in the FOP and the police union, I know that at the end of the day, he loves his city."

The Police Department is 42 percent black, 7.5 percent Hispanic and 2 percent Asian, according to officials.

Under union bylaws, the first vice president assists the president in the administration of the lodge, chairs its finance committee, shapes the lodge budget, and oversees other committees.

Lt. Victor Gearhart, Butler's predecessor, said he encouraged Butler to run for the position and is happy he won. "The FOP needed a little more diversity," he said.

Gearhart is on suspension from the department for the "thugs" email.

"I speak my mind," he said. "Kenny is more measured in his response to people. He gets it. Things that I don't get, he gets."

Longtime local civil rights leader Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham is optimistic that Butler will bring about positive change. But he pointed to Butler's tenure as Vanguard president since 2010 — a period when the Justice Department investigators found police in Baltimore regularly used constitutionally questionable tactics, particularly in black neighborhoods — as a reason to be wary.

"I don't want to give Kenny a pass," Cheatham said. "I put some blame on him and Vanguard for not speaking out against the injustice in the past."

Butler, who is single and has a 17-year-old son, grew up in Baltimore near the old Memorial Stadium.

He graduated from Northern High School and followed his uncle, Sgt. Lewis Taylor, into the police force.

Butler's father died of Hodgkins lymphoma when Butler was a small child. He says Taylor, who died this year, was like a father to him.

Butler said Taylor told stories about working foot patrol in the 1950s — before black officers were allowed to drive patrol cars — and getting to know people on the beat. He hopes he can apply lessons from his uncle, from growing up in Baltimore and from his own career on the force to his new union role.

"Growing up in Baltimore, I may see some guys hanging on the corner, but I can walk up and approach them," he said. "Another officer, who may not have come from Baltimore, doesn't know the culture of Baltimore, may come in a different way, may be more aggressive. And that's just not knowing, or they may have their inherent biases. And it's been said to me that I can bring something different to the FOP that maybe other people don't see."

Butler, like Ryan, opposes allowing citizens to serve on the trial boards that hear claims of officer misconduct. He also questions some of the findings of racial bias in the Justice Department's report. He believes "race plays a role in our daily lives," but thinks the public is too quick to conclude that officers who use force are racially motivated, even before an investigation occurs.

"If an officer uses force against an African-American, some may say, 'Well, he did it because the person is African-American,'" he said. "Well, maybe he didn't. Maybe he just had to use force."

Ed Jackson, a retired Baltimore police colonel and former board chair of Vanguard, has known Butler since 1983, when he was a young officer and Butler, then 17, approached him in a 7-Eleven and told him he wanted to be a cop. He's tracked Butler's career ever since, served as his direct superviser for a time, and is currently Butler's professor in an operational management course at Baltimore City Community College, where Butler is pursuing an associate's degree in criminal justice.

After Gray's death last year, Jackson said, he told Butler that he would never be able to please everyone, so he should focus on making the department "a better organization to address the concerns of the people it serves."

"You'll always have your critics who will say he's the proverbial Uncle Tom, because he's not out there protesting along with the community in Sandtown-Winchester," Jackson said. "You're going to get some flak with this Freddie Gray thing if you don't come out with a raised fist like a Black Panther ... but the quickest way to silence your critics is to know the issues, the systemic issues."

There are plenty of problems to point out in the Police Department, Jackson said, but "you can't blame them for poverty, poor parenting, a lack of housing, schools without books."

Butler, for his part, said he has always approached life — personally, in his career and during his time with Vanguard — the same way.

"My style is this: You can bring problems to me, but bring solutions also," he said. "I'll listen to anyone, because maybe I don't know. I don't know everything. Maybe the guy on the corner may say, 'Hey, look man, if you do A, B, C, this could help us out. This could help everybody.'

"I'm open to that."

krector@baltsun.com

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