The Intuition of Anthony Batts: Commissioner's experiences in Los Angeles and Fruitvale riots inform strategy during unrest

City Paper

In a recent speech to Baltimore’s Fraternal Order of Police, Commissioner Anthony Batts apologized for failing his officers. Sounding a bit like Agent Dale Cooper, the mystical FBI agent on David Lynch’s seminal television series “Twin Peaks,”  Batts said that he should have trusted his intuition.

“I saw this stuff coming. From the day that I walked in here I seen this stuff coming on a lot of different levels,” he said. “My intuition told me I should’ve went another direction. By not going another direction, my guys got hurt.”

Later, on WYPR’s “Midday with Dan Rodricks,” Batts explained that his intuition came from a background in “riot situations,” from the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, through the Fruitvale riots in Oakland in 2010—eight in all, according to the commissioner. “I’m talking about [how] I didn’t follow the intuition of riot and crowd-control background,” he said.

“What I was told by command staff was we hadn’t had a riot in 40 years. So I had to make a decision in priorities,” he said, noting that “when I came into the organization two-and-a-half years ago the training was horrible.”

“Essentially when he’s saying that, he’s saying he should have trusted his magic intuition instead of trusting his commanders,” says former Baltimore Police Sgt. Michael Wood by telephone from Pennsylvania, where he is working on a Ph.D. in criminal justice. Wood likens Batts’ claim to saying “The only thing that went wrong here is that I didn’t rely on my awesomeness.”

Nevertheless, Batts’ past experiences have clearly influenced his handling of the Baltimore Uprising.  He has told the story that, as a young child in Los Angeles, he asked his mother, “Does anybody care that young people who look like me are losing their lives on these streets?” He says that influenced his decision to become a police officer in Long Beach, where he was working when the officers who beat Rodney King in Los Angeles were acquitted, leading to days of rioting in 1992. Long Beach police chief Robert Luna attributes this experience, in which Long Beach police were used for crowd control, in developing Batts’ ideas on community policing.

He was eventually made the chief of the Long Beach police department, where he was involved in several scandals, including “lobstergate,” a case involving retaliation against whistle-blower cops that is reminiscent of Joseph Crystal’s case in Baltimore (Crystal had a dead rat left on his windshield after he reported officers beating a suspect and was allegedly pushed out of the department).

He continued to work out his ideas on community policing and began to work with Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He ultimately wrote a dissertation on the use of police force and continues to write academic articles on topics such as “Police Leadership Challenges in a Changing World,” which was published in 2012 and in which Batts’s structural analysis sounds more like something from David Simon’s Audacity of Despair blog than the work of Baltimore’s police commissioner (“Like most modern work structures, police agencies trace their roots to the first industrial revolution,” Batts writes, for example).

He eventually left Long Beach to take the top cop position in Oakland in 2009, between the unrest involving the death of Oscar Grant at the hands of transit police officer Johannes Mehserle and the full-blown riots that erupted in late 2010 when Mehserle was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter rather than murder and hundreds of protesters were subsequently arrested by Batts’ force.

Batts’ description of his handling of those riots may sound familiar to those who accuse him of giving orders to “stand down” during the looting of April 27.

“We allowed the protesters to start breaking into Foot Locker. They broke into Foot Locker and different places,” he told newspaper Oakland North in an exit interview. “But we had to do that because we didn’t want to look like this was a police action, where we were responding too soon. Then we had a very coordinated plan. It took us time to just kind of corral them, bring them in, and take them to jail. We didn’t have any complaints whatsoever, and the citizens said we did a good job.”

Not many people would say that Batts did a good job handling the events of April 27, which began with a memo about gangs uniting to “take out” police officers and escalated when, in response to a social media post, buses stopped running at Mondawmin Mall, forcing kids into the streets, where police, in riot gear, were already waiting. It is hard not to see such action as “responding too soon.”

But his description of allowing the protesters to break into a Foot Locker sounds familiar to anyone at Penn North on April 27, when a massive line of police stood, a block away, as the CVS was looted and the police did nothing.   

Batts told Oakland North that he had developed a template prior to those riots, which has been evident in his handling of protests in Baltimore. “I do know when we did it for Mehserle in July 2010 and then Mehserle for November 2010 [after his sentencing],” he said, “we did all these steps and we kind of wrote out a template,” which involved community involvement so that the police did not look bad as the “front end.”

In his interview with Rodricks, Batts noted that the press, which included City Paper, praised his handling of the protests in Baltimore during the fall surrounding the failure of a Missouri grand jury to indict officer Darren Wilson for the death of unarmed Mike Brown.

During those protests I followed him closely and we spoke often. He was on the streets at almost every protest. And where in other cities police were arresting numerous protesters and coming out in riot gear, there was no riot gear in Baltimore and few, if any, arrests.

“The Baltimore Police Department is not used to crowd control and what goes on with crowd control ,” he told me on Dec. 4 at the demonstration outside of Penn Station. “So we’re learning as we go. We’re getting better at giving space.”

Expanding on what he meant, he said, “I started off at Light and Pratt and got in the crowd and talked to some people to let the people know I understand what they’re doing and allowing it and trying to build relationships, not be adversarial. What we’re trying to do now is hand out behavior notifications about what we will and won’t allow, so they understand we won’t let them block traffic and shut down the city, we will facilitate them doing their First Amendment rights and giving them enough space to do it, and we will try to open up communications on the front end so if we need to stop traffic so they can accomplish what they need [we can], but we’re not allowing them to shut down freeways, that’s not going to happen. That’s where we draw the line.”

I asked what would happen if protesters tried to shut down a freeway. “I’ll say ‘pretty please, don’t do it,” Batts replied.

When six of his own officers were involved in the death of Freddie Gray, Batts did not say “pretty please.” In fact, it broke all the molds he was used to dealing with. When L.A. rioted over the Rodney King beatings, the Long Beach police force was not the direct cause of the unrest, and neither was the Oakland police department when Grant was killed by a transit cop.

Still, there is a much greater difference in policing Baltimore and Long Beach or Oakland, according to Batts, who compared arriving into Baltimore from California to “going back in time” in a C-SPAN interview last February.

“It’s about black-and-white racism in that city,” he said of Baltimore. “It’s all the things you dealt with in the 1960s.”

Around the same time, when he addressed a White House panel on policing, he compared it to “1950s-level black-and-white racism.”

He has said that it is part of his job to “get those different communities speaking to each other, get them at the table having open and authentic conversations,” such as he experienced in Long Beach where “we talked about race openly . . . because there was so much diversity,” and Oakland, which had “moved beyond race.” 

Despite the fact that he presided over some of the first major protests surrounding the killing of an unarmed black man by police, Batts thought that Oakland had moved beyond race, while Baltimore was stuck in the 1960s or even 1950s. That shows how bad racism is here.

It also raises questions about how Batts and his department, in which morale, by all accounts, is near terminally low, is preparing for the trial of the six officers indicted in the death of Freddie Gray. Both of the major uprisings that formed him occurred not as the result of an initial event but because of the subsequent trial—and yet both dealt with other agencies. Now that Batts is, by all accounts, losing the faith of the rank and file and of the political leadership, it is hard to see where his intuition will lead him.

Joseph Crystal, the whistle-blowing cop who was reportedly run out of the department, sees two possible options.

“More than likely he’s probably going to hire somebody that he knows from the past to do some write-up or study about how they can do this better,” Crystal says. “But you have to be asking: Is he going to be here by the time of the trial.”

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