New Baltimore Police Commissioner Batts seeks fresh start

Charismatic leader built reputation in Long Beach, left Oakland amid conflict

  • Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts is silhouetted during his walk around a west Baltimore block.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts is silhouetted… (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore…)
September 22, 2012|By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore's next police commissioner is walking through a west-side neighborhood with some of the community's most engaged residents, but that's not enough for Anthony W. Batts.

He wants to talk to a teacher sipping coffee on her porch. He jogs across the street to greet an older woman standing on her front lawn. "Thank you for being involved," Batts tells the group giving him a tour of Bridgeview/Greenlawn.

The charm offensive is meant to convince Baltimoreans that a law enforcement career spent on the West Coast has prepared him to police one of the most dangerous cities in the East.

He comes to Baltimore looking to regain his footing as a crime fighter after leaving his last job amid conflict and spending a year on the sidelines. This week, he'll take over a police department that has overseen a sharp decline in homicides in recent years but still grapples with gun violence, and that has a force nearly five times larger than his last.

The expectations are monumental. The 52-year-old's arrival has Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake talking about Baltimore becoming the "safest big city in America."

On the walk, Batts is attentive and asks questions, displaying some of the qualities that propelled him through the ranks in Long Beach, Calif., where he worked for close to 30 years, became the city's youngest chief and built a reputation for community engagement.

Batts sets big goals and exudes charisma, from his disarming and sometimes self-deprecating public appearances to the monogram on his shirt cuffs. Short but powerful, he's got a doctoral degree, spent time at Harvard University, and has a list of references that reads like a who's-who of policing — including the chiefs of many of the country's biggest cities.

But he also has critics who see him as superficial and arrogant, and some say he checked out of his last job when things got tough. Batts was drawn from Long Beach to Oakland in 2009 to fix a department in crisis, vowing to vault one of California's most crime-ridden cities to a place among the state's safest. He resigned before two years, with uneven results.

He'll have to bring a more enduring commitment to his new job, said Cseneca Parker, who does anti-violence work with True Vine Ministries, a West Oakland church. His troubled Bay Area city continues to struggle with the crime problems that Batts said he hoped to solve when he took office.

"We loved him," he said. But "we can't leave West Oakland. Our babies and our families are here. He's going to have to be strong [in Baltimore], and have more stick-to-it-iveness."

After years of leading West Coast departments decimated by budget cuts, his supporters think he's primed to make a difference in Baltimore.

"If they expect him to tap dance and make people happy, it won't work," said former Long Beach vice mayor Doris Topsy-Elvord. "He's going to do what's best for the city. And he'll tell you what's best."

Into Long Beach

As a young black officer starting out in Long Beach, Batts recalls seeing racial epithets scrawled in police stations. There were few other officers of color, and it was clear nothing would be handed to him.

It was exactly what he said helped motivate him to get into policing.

Batts was born in Washington, D.C., where he lived until his family moved to the Los Angeles area when he was 5. Growing up in the Adams Boulevard corridor of South Central Los Angeles, Batts said his youth was marked by "all the dysfunctionality of gangs, violence, drugs and prostitution that a young person shouldn't have to see or grow up with."

He enjoyed watching police dramas on television like "Police Story" but didn't see a reflection of himself and his neighborhood.

"I was impacted by wondering if police officers or government cared about a young kid like me," Batts said.

His parents separated when he was 6, and Batts' mother kept him out of trouble with a busy schedule of school, church and sports, including baseball, football, and track. His mother, a school board employee who early on stressed the importance of college, arranged for him to attend the more affluent John Marshall High School. The campus, near the ABC Television Center, served as the backdrop to the carnival scene in "Grease."

He enrolled in the Los Angeles Police Department Explorers program, a sort of Boy Scouts for law enforcement.

After high school, he enrolled in Santa Monica College and then California State's Long Beach campus, and had designs on becoming an attorney. During that time, he mentored at-risk youths, and said the death of a boy he was working with was the transformative moment that convinced him to become a police officer. Though he offers up this personal story and others, he is also guarded on details, declining to identify the boy or discuss the circumstances of his death.

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