The return of the Freddie Gray case to center stage in Baltimore yesterday offered us personifications of the two poles of our city's experience of the last few months. In former Police Commissioner Anthony Batts, who resurfaced for a panel discussion two months after he was fired, we got a reminder of how poor leadership contributed to a disastrous spring and summer of violence and destruction. And in Circuit Judge Barry Williams, we got a glimpse of the steadiness and maturity we need to steer through this crisis.
In his appearance at Mt. St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg, Mr. Batts managed to construct an entirely self-centered version of events before and after April's riots. In his telling, he is a crusading reformer whose efforts to drag Baltimore's police force into the 21st century were such anathema to the rank and file that they "took a knee" and allowed crime to spike. In Mr. Batts' view, police in Baltimore and elsewhere demand to be coddled by leaders and supported unconditionally — and will throw a tantrum if they're not. He painted himself as having tried single-handedly to "change the organization to better align it with the community," which had developed a "visceral hatred for the uniform" before he got here.
Yes, Baltimore's police needed — and still need — reform to overcome years of corruption scandals, excessive force complaints and a legacy of the city's era of mass arrests. But Mr. Batts was here for more than two and a half years before Freddie Gray's arrest. If the officers involved failed to follow department policies or even acted criminally — as prosecutors allege — doesn't that reflect in some way on his leadership? Doesn't he bear some responsibility for the massive mistrust of the police by large segments of the community that erupted after Gray's death?
Furthermore, Mr. Batts conveniently ignores that the drop in arrests and spike in crime the city experienced this spring and summer didn't come after he instituted some kind of reform. It came after officers were sent in the streets to respond to unrest with what he has admitted was inadequate training and equipment and amid significant confusion about their orders and the strategy behind them. Mr. Batts claims he saw a riot brewing here. So who's responsible for the police being ill prepared? Some officers said they were reluctant to act for fear that they could be indicted, as those involved in Gray's arrest were. To the extent that reflected a poor understanding of the applicable law, it was up to Mr. Batts to correct it. To the extent that reflected a morale problem, it was up to him to fix it. The fact that he still fails to see any of that helps explain how things went so badly wrong here.
Judge Williams, by contrast, stepped into a messy situation yesterday and took charge. He quickly cut through the foolishness displayed by both the prosecution and the defense in the Gray case and made sound decisions to bring the trials of the six officers forward as smoothly as possible. The judge on the one hand criticized State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby for some of her extra-judicial comments but simultaneously recognized that they were a matter for the state's attorney grievance commission to handle, not him. He was also spot-on in calling out defense attorneys for suggesting that Ms. Mosby's marriage to City Councilman Nick Mosby, who represents the area where Gray was arrested, posed a conflict of interest. It was "troubling and condescending."
And his decision that the six officers should each have their own trials was likely the prudent one. Although that was the desire of the defense rather than the prosecutors, it's difficult to know which side, if any, will ultimately gain any advantage from that arrangement. But what can be said with some certainty is that separating the cases makes for cleaner trials. It sharply reduces the chances that a jury would be exposed to evidence that should not have been admitted, removes the potential for conflicts of interest among defendants and decreases the chances that jurors' views of one defendant would be swayed by the evidence against another. What that means is less chance for a mistrial, less chance for verdicts to be overturned on appeal and a greater chance that the officers' fates will be decided on the merits and not technicalities. We hope and expect that he will exercise the same wisdom and good judgment next week when he hears arguments on whether the trials should be moved out of Baltimore.