Firing Anthony Batts

Baltimore's Police Department has been in turmoil for weeks. The mayhem before and after Freddie Gray's funeral plunged the city into chaos as images of police standing like targets for rioters' rocks and bricks were beamed around the world. Shootings and killings have spiked to levels not seen in decades while arrests suddenly and mysteriously plummeted. Through it all, Commissioner Anthony Batts talked a good game about the need for reforms to rebuild the community's trust in the department, but ultimately he commanded the trust neither of the community nor of the officers. The only mystery about his dismissal is why Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake didn't dismiss him long ago.

The mayor is right, the controversy about Mr. Batts' leadership was distracting from the fight against violent crime. He needed to go, but the timing only perpetuates the sense that the city's leadership has been reeling from one crisis to the next rather than taking control. The announcement of Mr. Batts' departure came hours after the Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police issued a report on how officers were equipped and deployed during the rioting, a report that was sharply critical of Mr. Batts. It also comes after a more unexpected blow to community perceptions of the police in the outsized reaction to a Sun op-ed by 27-year-old Connor Meek who described his frustrating encounters with city police when he tried to report a stolen bicycle.


In ways large and small, perceptions of the police had clearly reached a breaking point. Whether Ms. Rawlings-Blake can restore them will depend on whether she recognizes that it is not just the leadership in police headquarters but also in City Hall that is in question. The FOP's report feeds a sense that the mayor bungled a crisis, and the reaction to Mr. Meek's op-ed speaks to a public perception that she and others in City Hall are out of touch. She and her next commissioner will need to address both.

'Those who wished to destroy'

What is almost certainly the most widely repeated and hotly debated utterance of Mayor Rawlings-Blake's career is front and center in the FOP report: "We also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that." And it strikes to the heart of the central question many officers and ordinary citizens alike have asked in the weeks since: Did the mayor or command staff give orders to front-line police that allowed the unrest to billow out of control into full-scale violence and destruction?

The mayor has insisted that the quote has been misconstrued, that what she meant was that a decision to give space to peaceful protesters had the unfortunate and unintended result of affording those with malicious intent the ability to cause mayhem. But the accounts the FOP compiled add weight to the accusations that the mayor's remark reflected more than an inartful turn of phrase but a deliberate strategy. It demands a much more thorough and transparent response than police commanders and City Hall have provided so far.

The FOP has had a legacy of tension with Mayor Rawlings-Blake, including a years-long dispute about changes to pension benefits that the union took to federal court and opposition to her efforts to reform state laws governing officer discipline. It is in that sense not necessarily the ideal entity to take on the task of analyzing how she and Mr. Batts handled an event that left many officers literally and figuratively wounded. This morning, the mayor pounced on that history to discredit the report as "a trumped up political document full of baseless allegations, finger pointing and personal attacks." (Speaking of personal attacks, the statement accuses the FOP of "choosing to be their lesser selves.") But the assertions the union makes about what instructions officers were given and how they were trained and equipped are too specific and detailed to be dismissed so easily.

In particular, the report says that Mr. Batts and other top commanders told hundreds of officers during a roll call on April 25, the Saturday when the Freddie Gray protests first turned violent, that they should allow some level of destruction of property before intervening "so that it would show that the rioters were forcing our hand." The report describes protocols in which officers were required to get approval from the department's civilian lawyers before making arrests and communications over police radio channels in which officers were told to allow looting to take place. The report claims officers were told not to wear helmets, gloves and other protective gear so as not to appear too "Billy badass" and that they were ordered to use non-lethal crowd control equipment in ways that were ineffective.

The mayor and commissioner have acknowledged some shortcomings in the city's response to the riots. Ms. Rawlings-Blake recently promised new riot gear before the verdicts in the cases against the six officers involved in Freddie Gray's death — the FOP report details myriad faults with the equipment officers were given — and Mr. Batts has apologized for having failed to provide officers with more training in crowd control. Last week, he acknowledged widespread confusion about the meaning and purpose of orders to "hold the line" during the unrest rather than to engage the rioters and make arrests. But the portrait of the city's civilian and police leaders that emerges from the FOP's report is far more damning, suggesting indecisiveness and a greater concern with how the police response looked on TV than with how effective it was in protecting officer safety and private property.

The FOP's report is based on interviews with police who were on the front lines, focus groups and surveys, and it consists largely of accounts by officers who are not named. (In fairness, the union had little choice there, as officers would surely have faced discipline had they lent their names to the project.) But it is rich for the mayor's spokesman to tut-tut that "the FOP continues to issue baseless and false information instead of working with us to find solutions that will protect our officers." The FOP filed a Public Information Act request for reams of information that could have shed some objective light on the situation — tapes of radio transmissions, emails, text messages and the like — but the city has handed over very little of it.

This report has its limitations and biases, but more than two months after the fact, it's the only report we've got. Neither the police nor the mayor's administration has issued anything like a comprehensive assessment of what happened on those nights of violence, and a third-party review by the Police Executive Research Forum is only slated to begin today . If what the FOP reported is wrong, Mayor Rawlings-Blake needs to prove it.

Closed for business

Given that Baltimore could finish this year with more homicides than it's seen since the 1990s, it sounds ridiculous that a young man's story about a stolen bicycle would resonate as much as it has. But it speaks both to a sense that the police are at best indifferent (and at worst, hostile) to those they are sworn to protect, and that Baltimore's elected leaders have no idea what's really going on in the city.


On Monday's op-ed page, Mr. Meek wrote of how challenging it proved to be to report the June 15th incident to police — in large part because not one but two police stations, the Southwestern District where he initially tried to contact police and the Southern District where he was eventually transported, were closed to visitors from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. That a city police district would be closed at a time when it would presumably be most needed by ordinary citizens struck him as outrageous.


By Tuesday, people at every level of city government were climbing all over themselves to denounce that policy, and the police swiftly reversed it. That's all well and good, but the fact that the station hours were such a shock to City Hall in the first place is disquieting.

Councilman Ed Reisinger may be right that closing a police station overnight is "stupid with a capital 'S,' " but as someone who represents portions of South and Southwest Baltimore, why is this the first the councilman has heard of it? Mayor Rawlings-Blake called the situation "unacceptable," a condemnation that's a bit blunted by her failure to be aware of what the city's crime victims have been dealing with every night for who knows how long — months, years or decades.

'The utmost urgency'

It has been clear for weeks that the mayor and Mr. Batts were not working closely together and at times appeared at odds over how to navigate the tricky cross-currents of community discontent and poor police morale that have followed Freddie Gray's death and the riots. Ms. Rawlings-Blake put her decision in appropriate context during a news conference today when she cited the continued killings — four in the city in just the previous 24 hours — and the need for change to address them. Her interim commissioner, Kevin Davis, struck the right tone by vowing both to go after the "bad guys with guns" who are responsible for a disproportionate share of the violence while also making clear that between the police and the community "it's not an enforcement relationship, it's a service relationship" — something Mr. Meek and those who identified with his story are doubtless happy to hear.

But perhaps the most important thing to emerge here is that the change in commissioners is perhaps the first significant leadership decision Ms. Rawlings-Blake has made since the riots. She said "it is with the utmost urgency that we get the crime surge under control," and we hope that after weeks in which the city seemed adrift, she will start to recognize that the city feels a sense of urgency to address the wide swath of problems that have been exposed by Freddie Gray's death and its aftermath. Now is not a time for half measures. Replacing Mr. Batts was a necessary step but hardly the last Mayor Rawlings-Blake needs to take.