Taking command

Our view: New police commissioner Anthony Batts' experience, confidence and fresh perspective could serve Baltimore well

August 28, 2012

Whoever Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake had chosen to replace retired Baltimore City Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III would have had a tough act to follow. But in Anthony Batts, who comes to Baltimore after a 30-year career in California that included stints as police chief in Long Beach and Oakland, the mayor may have found a leader whose skills and experience match Baltimore's needs. If Mr. Batts can build on the solid accomplishments of his able predecessor, he will find a warm welcome in this city.

The Baltimore-born Mr. Bealefeld was a cop's cop who rose through the ranks on ability and a no-nonsense attitude that got results. His tenure saw a steady drop in violent crime and the lowest homicide rates in more than a generation. He brought stability to a department that had been floundering under a series of commissioners who lacked local roots, and he helped make the city a safer place through a nuanced approach to fighting crime that relied less on politically popular quick fixes than on a relentless analysis of the data to guide his reforms.

Mr. Batts, who was born in Washington, D.C., but grew up in South-Central Los Angeles, says he was inspired to go into law enforcement by the violent death of a youngster he was mentoring while serving as a police cadet in California. As police chief of both Oakland and Long Beach, he was charged with reforming departments that had been alienated from the communities they served by claims of excessive force. In both cases, he drove crime rates down by instituting better training for members of the department, rebuilding trust between his officers and local residents, and enforcing a zero-tolerance policy toward corruption in the ranks.

Mr. Batts will face similar challenges here, where residents' unwillingness to cooperate with police has been a long-standing problem in some neighborhoods, and where a number of highly publicized police corruption and misconduct scandals recently have shaken public confidence in the department's commitment to integrity. Mr. Batts will need to move swiftly and surely if he is to win the trust of his headquarters colleagues and top commanders, as well as get to know the city's neighborhoods from the street-level perspective of his officers on the beat.

Mr. Batts, who will begin work Sept. 27 (if his nomination is, as expected, approved by the City Council), says his first three months will be spent listening to his officers and the community, and auditing the department's various functions: the crime lab, communications, weapons and tactics, evidence collection and storage procedures, and the like. A longer-term goal is to put more officers on the streets, not only because that often is where crimes are most easily solved but because it fits in with the strategy of community policing that Mr. Batts thinks is needed to reduce crime overall.

There's inevitably going to be a learning curve as the new commissioner gets a feel for our town, but Mr. Batts says he believes the city he inherits from Mr. Bealefeld is already moving in the right direction in most respects — particularly in its reliance on data to guide policy and its use of technology such as the surveillance cameras and gunshot microphones that keep watch over some areas of the city.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake says she is confident Mr. Batts can continue the progress the city made under Mr. Bealefeld, and she indicates she has given him a free hand to carry out reforms he thinks are necessary. For his part, Mr. Batts says he understands that some in the department wanted to see a local get the top spot. But we agree with those in the community who believe an outsider can bring a valuable, fresh perspective to Baltimore's crime-fighting efforts.

Mr. Batts, who will probably be the single most important appointee of the Rawlings-Blake administration, is self-assured and adept at articulating his plans and goals. If his policies produce results that match his high expectations, Baltimore will be the better for it.

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