After Batts: Now what?

Firing Anthony Batts was the easy part. Now Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and interim Police Commissioner Kevin Davis must stop Baltimore's surge in violence while simultaneously accomplishing the twin tasks of restoring community trust in the police and boosting officers' morale, goals that have appeared starkly at odds with one another in the weeks since Freddie Gray's arrest and death. It can be done, and it must, but it's going to require steps that go beyond what the department and administration have appeared willing to take up to this point.

Community relations


If all it took to overcome the historical animosity between many Baltimore residents and the officers who are supposed to protect them was showing up at neighborhood meetings and crime walks, Mr. Batts would have set the world record for the fastest turnaround in police-community relations. He could cite a battery of statistics about declining complaints against officers, use-of-force incidents and police brutality lawsuits, but they didn't add up to a true change in attitudes. If they did, Freddie Gray's death wouldn't have struck such a chord (and maybe wouldn't have happened at all), and residents wouldn't be following police around with video cameras every time they show up to make an arrest or interview witnesses in West Baltimore.

The mayor and Mr. Davis need to do something tangible, and the most obvious answer is to greatly accelerate the deployment of body cameras for officers in the city. Ms. Rawlings-Blake has maintained her commitment to doing so, but she has sent mixed signals by vetoing a City Council bill requiring them and insisting that they will come on her own, strikingly deliberative timetable. The mayor's insistence that she would rather do it right than quickly sounds good but fails to appreciate the greater danger, which is that the lack of trust between the community and police is contributing to the city's runaway violent crime rate. We understand that the cameras present a host of logistical, technical and legal issues, but Baltimore isn't the first city to grapple with them. It doesn't take four years to figure this out. The sooner city residents see cameras on officers, the sooner they will believe that something has changed.

Police morale

As for the officers, the causes of their morale problems are no mystery. They have been quite explicit about them. The city Fraternal Order of Police's report on what went wrong during April's riots describes a host of grievances about how the department's commanders and the mayor prepared, equipped and deployed them. If Ms. Rawlings-Blake gained anything in the eyes of the rank and file by firing Mr. Batts, she more than squandered it by flatly dismissing the document as a politically motivated hatchet job, and then by icily observing during her news conference about the chief's dismissal that, "I don't think many who know me would suggest that I would do anything to placate the FOP."

You cannot improve the department's morale by refusing to take its concerns seriously. Both the mayor and Mr. Davis need to offer a substantive, public and transparent response, and they can start by providing the radio communications, emails, text messages and other materials the FOP requested when compiling the report. Before he was fired, Mr. Batts said he had completed his own after-action report. That needs to be made public, too. Officers have also said they are hesitant in doing their jobs for fear that they will face criminal charges, as the six officers involved in Freddie Grays' arrest are. The mayor and her commissioner need to publicly and clearly state their view of the standards police must follow in detaining, searching and arresting suspects, and they need to stand behind officers who follow them. As the city endures its worst stretch of violence in years, it's not good enough for the mayor to say we need to let the legal process play out. We can't wait that long.

The crime surge

Stemming the crime surge is the most urgent and perhaps most difficult task, simply because its causes aren't well known. Police passivity and a lack of cooperation from the community may be factors, and so might be the flood of prescription drugs that hit the market after the looting of pharmacies during the riots. But we know strategies that have worked in the past, and they don't have to involve the mass arrests that drove such a wedge between the community and the police a decade ago. Baltimore had its best successes in recent days when it adopted a targeted enforcement approach — the "bad guys with guns" theory that Mr. Davis alluded to on Wednesday — and paired it with robust, institutionalized cooperation with federal and particularly state law enforcement agencies. That provided not only intelligence but also the means to go after potentially violent offenders through warrant sweeps, probation violations and other tools.

But key tools, like the Violence Prevention Initiative, in which probation officers met with high-risk probationers in district police stations; the warrant task force, which provided state assistance for sweeps to serve outstanding warrants; and GunStat, an initiative that tracked gun cases and helped officials identify hotspots for enforcement and individuals for tougher prosecution, have withered on the vine. Whether that's the fault of the new administration in Annapolis, the Rawlings-Blake administration or both, it needs to be reversed. Just because these were signature initiatives of former Gov. Martin O'Malley doesn't mean Gov. Larry Hogan's administration can't or won't adopt them. They worked, and not just in Baltimore. But Mayor Rawlings-Blake needs to make a push for them, and a good first step in that direction would be to stop sniping at Governor Hogan. Railing against the state's Republican chief executive (who has largely held his fire in return) might seem like good politics for next year's Democratic mayoral primary, but reducing the homicide rate would be even better.

The deeper problem

A final step, though perhaps the most difficult, could improve officer morale, community relations and the crime rate all in one, and that is to change the culture of a department in which an obsession with statistics has overshadowed the emphasis on good police work. Critics of city police leadership (notably, David Simon of "The Wire" fame, among others) have viewed the Freddie Gray case through the lens of a department in which producing statistics of arrests, stops, searches and so on became a substitute for the kind of thorough investigation that builds good cases and gets the right people off the street.

If the theory needed any validation, it came from the reaction to a March email from State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby's office. The head of her Crime Strategies Unit wrote to a Western District police commander to say that community members had complained to the state's attorney about an open air drug market in the area of North Avenue and Mount Street and suggesting a possible collaboration. That translated into an email from the commander to four lieutenants in the Western — including one of the officers charged in Gray's death — demanding a narcotics initiative that would produce "daily measurables." Had it not ended so tragically, Gray's arrest three weeks later presumably would have counted among them, even though he had done nothing more to attract police attention than to make eye contact with an officer.


Statistical analysis of crime patterns is a crucial tool in modern policing. But it's just that, a tool, and not an end in itself. That it has been treated that way by the Baltimore police has driven good people out of the department and rewarded callous ones; it has driven a wedge between the police and the community; and it has distracted from the difficult work of building cases that produce convictions.


Mr. Batts spoke frequently about the need to reform the department, mainly in terms of dealing with corruption in the ranks and weeding out cops who engage in brutality. Given the scandals that the department has weathered in recent years, both were clearly necessary. But they are products of deeper problems in a department where the focus on "measurables" has too often bred cynicism rather than accountability and professionalism.

Mr. Davis gets high marks from his previous postings in Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties, but he has little history in the Baltimore Police Department, which could prove an obstacle for him in taking over for Mr. Batts, another outsider who came to the city after a career in California. Meanwhile, the mayor's announcement that he would be the "interim" chief, though without any corresponding explanation about whether she would conduct a search for a permanent replacement for Mr. Batts, puts him in a sort of limbo in which he will doubtless feel pressure to show results quickly without necessarily commanding the kind of authority that would come with a full appointment.

So far, he is saying the right things about standing with the officers and serving the community, and so is the mayor when she talks about the urgency of stopping Baltimore's violent spring and summer. But Mr. Batts (with some notable exceptions) said a lot of the right things but had little to show for it. Baltimore has had enough talk. It needs action, and it's up to Mr. Davis to deliver.

More fundamentally, though, Mayor Rawlings-Blake needs to realize that the police department can only do so much to reduce crime, no matter who the leader is and no matter what strategies he or she follows. It is the underlying social and economic conditions in neighborhoods like Freddie Gray's that foster the violence and a whole host of other problems. The world saw that in the days before and after the riots, but it has produced no response whatsoever from City Hall. Baltimore is in need of visionary leadership, and that means a lot more than just firing the police commissioner.