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Batts sought reform for Baltimore, but results were mixed

Mayor said she fired him because questions about his leadership had become a distraction amid rising crime


A Monday, Feb. 11, 2013 file photo shows Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts at Girard College, in Philadelphia.

AP Image

By Justin Fenton
The Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts came to Baltimore in 2012 pledging reform, and during his nearly three years with the department, there was hardly an issue that arose that he didn’t meet with an advisory panel or outside experts.

When suspects died in police custody, he commissioned outside reviews. When a gay man was beaten, he formed an LGBT advisory council, one of several he would convene. A consultant’s report, which he called his “bible,” listed changes for nearly every corner of the Police Department, and he embraced a review by the U.S. Justice Department, including an ongoing civil rights investigation into allegations of excessive force.

As a newcomer to the Baltimore Police Department, he distanced himself from the problems while vowing to correct them.

“I didn’t break it, but I’m here to fix it,” the longtime Californian was wont to say.

But Batts, 54, struggled to gain buy-in to his efforts. As some members of the public questioned the agency’s efforts at reform and transparency, police officers believed Batts’ administration was cracking down unfairly and caving in to pressure.

Homicide rates seesawed, and officers said Batts never crafted a crime plan they could follow.

“I spoke with a lieutenant today, and he said to me, ‘We have no direction,’” said Lt. Kenneth Butler, president of the Vanguard Justice Society, an organization for black officers.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Batts improved public safety in the city, but she fired him because questions about his leadership had become a distraction amid rising crime.

Batts’ interim replacement, Kevin Davis, praised Batts’ efforts in the city. He said Batts was at “the top of the list” of reform-minded chiefs nationwide.

Batts, who is black and grew up in a poor section of Los Angeles, sought to improve relations between police and the communities they serve. He read to children at a Cherry Hill elementary school, and urged officers to become involved in their communities.

He also tried to engage the city in difficult discussions. Earlier this year, he said Baltimore was heavily segregated, and tried to spark a discussion on racism.

“Part of my job is to get those different communities speaking to each other, get them at the table having open and authentic conversations,” Batts said at the time.

One of his first actions as commissioner was to hand-deliver the autopsy report of Anthony Anderson to his family. Anderson had died in police custody. Batts appointed an independent commission to investigate his death, but that investigation’s findings were rejected by the Anderson family, who are suing the department.

It was Batts’ first major brush with criticism of how the deparment handled brutality claims. He would use the template again when another man, Tyrone West, died in police custody in 2013. It was met with a similar reaction.

“I think he should have lost his job a long time ago for the simple fact that he wasn’t taking police brutality seriously,” West’s sister, Tawanda Jones, said Wednesday. Her family’s lawsuit against the department is also pending.

“Real reform is difficult, and I think Commissioner Batts was sincere,” said James “Chips” Stewart, who chaired the West review panel.

Months after the Anderson report, in early 2013, Batts confronted the first crisis on his watch: the shooting of a police trainee by a department instructor during an unauthorized exercise at the abandoned Rosewood state hospital.

Police pledged a thorough internal investigation, but a report has never been released. A lawsuit in that case is pending.

Violence spiked during the summer of 2013, and Batts began talking openly about the problem of gangs. He stripped down and renamed the Violent Crimes Impact Section, a plainclothes unit deployed to high-crime areas that the previous administration had credited with driving down violence. But it had also developed a reputation for aggressive policing and corruption, and Batts did away with it.

The city had recorded fewer than 200 homicides for the first time in decades in 2011, but killings rose to 235 in 2013, and a six-year streak of reductions in nonfatal shootings was broken.

“Commissioner Batts has a very challenging job,” U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said at the time. “He walked onto the field in 2012 just as the momentum began to shift. He needs to continue to reform the department, but he also needs to inspire and motivate the outstanding officers who helped drive Baltimore’s murder rate to a record low just two years ago.”

More than a year after Batts took over, a $285,000 consultant’s report he commissioned was sharply critical of the department and outlined a slew of changes. The consultants recommended more foot patrols, body cameras for officers, and a rewrite of the agency’s internal policies and procedures.

Among the major changes was a new “Force Investigation Team” to investigate police shootings and other high-profile cases of alleged brutality. That unit, modeled on a similar outfit in Las Vegas, stripped the longtime authority to investigate police shootings from the homicide unit, and sought to speed up and reform the internal disciplinary process.

“I don’t think we’re biting off more than we can chew,” Batts said then. “We’re going to win the confidence back from all angles of this community.”

The department also said it would post the full reports of police use-of-force incidents online. But the criteria for triggering an investigation by the Force Investigation Team were vague, and reports have been posted online for only nine of the team’s more than 30 investigations from 2014. No reports have been posted for any of this year’s incidents.

The Baltimore Sun reported last October that the city had paid $5.7 million in court judgments and settlements in 102 civil suits alleging police misconduct since 2011.

Rawlings-Blake and Batts said complaints of excessive force and notices from lawyers planning to sue police had declined sharply. The number of police-involved shootings reached a decade low in 2014.

Still they embraced a review by the Justice Department.

Jack Baker, a longtime community volunteer who lives in South Baltimore, praised Batts for including members of the Police Community Relations Council in training and the promotion of officers. Baker acknowledged that he was initially skeptical of Batts, but said he was eventually won over.

“I’m gonna miss the man, I really am,” Baker said.

Copyright 2015 The Baltimore Sun