After violent first year, Batts still pushing to remake city's police department

Some say commissioner is taking too long; others argue he is doing his best

September 22, 2013|By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

As he ends his first year on the job, Baltimore police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts is facing questions about whether he is taking too long to remake the agency and develop a crime-fighting strategy. But others say he is being candid about the city's problems and deserves more time to make progress.

Batts, 53, said in a wide-ranging interview that he has been making improvements to the agency of nearly 3,000 officers, though not as quickly as he would like. He plans to keep a relentless focus on gangs and address issues of attrition and low pay for officers.

Against that backdrop, Baltimore is headed for a second consecutive annual increase in homicides, and the number of nonfatal shootings is on track to rise for the first time in six years.

"I think, by and large, the average citizen would say they're not sure where we're going and not comfortable with the direction," said Franklin Lance, a West Baltimore pastor and member of the Greater Mondawmin Coordinating Council.

City Councilman James Kraft of Southeast Baltimore said he felt that there "hasn't been much of a plan" amid recent crime spikes and says residents ask him of Batts: "Where is he?" Gov. Martin O'Malley said this week that the city has "hit a rough patch" and questioned the Police Department's approach.

But others say Batts has effectively communicated with residents and officials about Baltimore's struggles with gangs and drugs, broadening the discussion of an issue that at times has fallen squarely on the Police Department. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Batts has her full support.

"Commissioner Batts has a very challenging job," U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein said in an email. "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."

Batts, whose 30-year career prior to Baltimore was spent on the West Coast, believes attrition may be his biggest challenge. He said officers are "voting with their feet," leaving the agency amid frustration over pay and changes to their pensions.

Department statistics show that the number of officers leaving the force since Batts took over is 33 percent higher than in the same period before his arrival. The attrition rate and homicides have generally risen and fallen together over most of the past seven years.

In 2013, an average of 22 officers have left per month. Over the past six years, that monthly average has fluctuated between 14 and 21. But on a per capita basis, the force remains three times larger than the one Batts commanded in Oakland, Calif.

"We're going in the right direction [overall]," he said. "We've got to get to the negotiating table and need to get these guys a raise, and I think you'll see a turnaround of the [crime] numbers."

Police union leaders say they appreciate that Batts recognizes the importance of officer pay and morale, but progress has been slow. The union put together a series of recommendations last year covering strategy as well as compensation, and officials worry that they've been ignored.

"He's had a year already," said Gene Ryan, vice president of the city's Fraternal Order of Police lodge. "How long does it take?"

Batts said his first year in Baltimore has been marked by efforts to streamline police operations and to begin to address long-standing priorities such as redrawing police post boundaries. He has endorsed more foot patrols and created a new internal affairs bureau led by a former Los Angeles police commander.

In one of the most visible shifts, Batts has brought gangs to the forefront of discussions about crime. While his predecessors were at times accused of playing down gang activity, he's made it a focal point and says groups such as the Black Guerrilla Family are to blame for much of the city's violence.

"What we did not realize in the community was how much these gangs had gotten a foothold," said the Rev. Alvin Hathaway of Union Baptist Church in West Baltimore. "The Police Department has helped us understand that. Commissioner Batts has been forthright about that."

The agency has faced its share of turmoil since Batts started on the job a year ago this week at a salary of $190,000.

When he arrived in Baltimore, police were facing criticism over the death of 46-year-old Anthony Anderson, whose ribs were broken and spleen ruptured when he was thrown to the ground during a drug arrest in East Baltimore. Batts visited the family to assure them that police were taking the case seriously, and prosecutors later determined that the officers had followed protocol.

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