Batts' mission [Editorial]

Our view: The police commissioner's restructuring plan needs to lead to a better focus on the illegal guns that feed Baltimore's cycle of violence

November 22, 2013

Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts' long-awaited consultant's report on how to reshape his department and drive down crime comes to what sounds like an obvious conclusion: The city's police should focus on gangs, guns and violent repeat offenders. The 200-page document underscores the extent to which that is easier said than done — it includes dozens of recommendations for changing the department's structure, procedures and use of technology. But at its heart, it tells us what we already knew — that gun crimes are the city's most pressing concern and that focused efforts by the police can help drive them down.

The question of the department's focus came into sharp relief last week when the American Civil Liberties Union raised questions about the department's tracking of officers' interactions with the public. The group reported that of some 123,000 documented stops of citizens conducted by police last year, only about 500 led to searches, resulting in a total haul of just nine guns, a knife and a handful of drugs.

The ACLU thinks it's unlikely so few weapons or drugs would turn up given the large number of stops made by police, so there must be something wrong with the numbers — either the cops aren't reporting all the searches they're making, or for some reason they're only managing to turn up a tiny fraction of all the illegal guns and drugs that are out there. Mr. Batts said he "strongly agrees" about the need for more effective record keeping.

But it's the stunningly low number of guns the officers found that should be worrying Mr. Batts the most. Illegal guns have fed the recent spike in Baltimore's homicide rate after years of steady decline, and no matter how many people police stop on the street because they suspect someone might have a joint in their pocket, such tactics won't end the carnage.

Indeed, since Mr. Batts' arrival in Baltimore he has said he wants to improve relations between the police and the community. Unfortunately, that may also be one of the reasons behind his decision early on to effectively disband the department's Violent Crimes Impact Section, which specifically targeted the relatively small number of "bad guys with guns" who commit most of the city's serious crime.

VCIS officers had been dispatched to high-crime areas across the city with a mandate to focus on gun offenders regardless of whether they were involved in the drug trade. It was a strategy that proved effective in reducing homicides, which had fallen to their lowest level in decades by 2011. But it also led to charges that residents were being harassed and scapegoated by officers simply because of where they lived. Mr. Batts responded to such complaints by reorganizing the unit and putting it under a different supervisory structure within the department. Unfortunately that didn't stop the complaints, nor did it lead to a reduction in homicides. In fact, just the opposite occurred.

The consultant's report suggests beefing it up again, arguing, in effect, that better police-community relations and narrowly targeted efforts against illegal guns are two sides of the same coin, not either-or options.

We hope that the reforms Mr. Batts is now pursuing will help the department to parse its community relations problem into separate drug and homicide components. Many city residents deeply resent being hassled over minor drug offenses, and they resent even more seeing their peers jailed for long periods for possessing small amounts of drugs or being linked to illegal sales.

On the other hand, there's broad community support for getting illegal guns off the street. In neighborhoods where nearly everyone has seen someone get shot, there's nothing ambivalent about residents' desire to see shooters locked up where they can't threaten further harm. Guns are the greatest risk of the drug trade to the innocent as well as the guilty in poor neighborhoods, and everyone there has a stake in preventing the violence from touching them, even if it means cooperating with police.

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