Hail to the chief [Editorial]

Our view: The ringing endorsement City Council members gave Baltimore police commissioner Anthony Batts last week reflected a remarkable turnaround in assessments of his performance on the job

August 29, 2014

Almost exactly two years ago this week Anthony Batts arrived in Baltimore to take over the leadership of the city's police department. Since then Baltimore has seen homicides go up, then come down again as Mr. Batts has instituted reforms, shaken up the force and reached out to local residents in an effort to build trust between his officers and the citizens they serve. It wasn't always obvious that the department was making progress on his watch, but it's a measure of his success in all those endeavors that today he enjoys the confidence of public officials who just a year ago were openly questioning whether he was up to the job.

That remarkable turnaround in attitudes was reflected in the ringing endorsements Mr. Batts received this week from City Council members who appear set to unanimously approve his nomination for a new six-year contract as the city's top cop. Over the past two years Mr. Batts clearly has proven himself as a leader who can get things done, and he has vindicated the high hopes Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake held out for him when she recruited him from the West Coast where he had spent most of his 30-year career in law enforcement. That's quite an accomplishment.

Mr. Batts, who developed a reputation as a hands-on leader in his earlier jobs in Oakland and Long Beach, Calif., admittedly had a hard act to follow on coming to Baltimore. His predecessor, former Police Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld III, presided over a seven-year decline in violent crime that by 2012 had left the city with the lowest homicide rate in a generation. For reasons that are still unclear, those numbers began to spike just as Mr. Batts assumed the department's helm and continued to go up throughout his first full year on the job despite the changes he pushed through in the department's tactical operations and institutional culture.

In one of his first acts as chief, Mr. Batts commissioned an outside consultant to identify strategies for reshaping the department and driving down crime rates. But boiled down to essentials, that 200-page document didn't tell us much we didn't already know. It said police should focus on gangs, illegal guns and violent repeat offenders — the same "bad guys with guns" that Mr. Bealefeld had targeted. Mr. Batts didn't help himself much by initially treating the 2013 spike in homicides as a statistical anomaly rather than as a serious problem requiring immediate attention.

That misstep was only compounded later when he made a comment that seemed to suggest the uptick in killings wasn't something "everyday citizens" need worry about because most of the victims were gang members or participants in the drug trade. As critics pointed out at the time, the remark seemed to imply that violent crime and murder were no big deal as long as such crimes were confined to poor inner-city communities — as if the deaths of people there don't affect their families, friends and neighbors.

To his credit, however, Mr. Batts was quick to recognize such mistakes and seek to repair the damage. He made a point of meeting with community groups to talk about the problems they faced and to ask for their help in solving crimes. After two transgender women were brutally murdered earlier this year he reached out to the city's LGBT community to assure them police were working to bring the killers to justice, and he reorganized the homicide department and attended town hall forums to address residents who cite police brutality as a top concern.

Perhaps most importantly, he has begun to bring homicides down again from the high levels reached last year. So far murders are down this year 6 percent over last, with shootings down 16 percent, robberies down 15 percent and overall crime down 9 percent compared to 2013. That represents progress, though homicides, the most closely watched indicator of the city's fight against crime, remain higher than they were in 2012.

Moreover, the city still faces significant law-enforcement challenges around issues of transparency — the department has yet to set up a functional civilian police review board or moved to install cameras on officers' uniforms to monitor their interactions with the public — as well as nuisance offenses that affect public safety, such as Baltimore's scofflaw dirt bike culture that endangers motorists and pedestrians. The city also needs to expand its Safe Streets gun violence reduction initiative, which employs streetwise outreach workers to persuade young men to choose nonviolent alternatives for settling disputes, beyond the four neighborhoods where it operates now.

Overall, however, the department seems to be moving in the right direction with Mr. Batts at the helm. If he can keep up the progress he has made so far in reforming the department, strengthening ties between police and the community and keeping the city's crime stats on a steadily downward trend he will indeed have earned the gratitude of Baltimore and all its residents.

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