System Failure: Anthony Batts could not reform a broken department and reduce the homicide rate

On the afternoon of July 6, just two days before Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake fired Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts, the department called a press conference to announce rare good news: arrests in three murders and six shootings.

“Many experienced detectives will tell you that they solve cases in one of two ways,” Deputy Commissioner Kevin Davis said at the 3 o’clock press conference in the department’s cramped press room. “One, intelligence from street cops who know the bad guys, and two, tips from our community.” Davis announced that both methods had resulted in three murders being cleared in the last several days. “We’ve closed six nonfatal shootings in the past several days,” Davis continued.  “It’s been a productive holiday weekend.”

Forty-eight hours later, just as Batts was set to hold another press conference—this one to discuss a review of the department’s actions amid the riots of April—Davis became the interim police commissioner. Having inspired neither his cops on the beat nor the wider community they police, Batts’ press conference—and the remainder of his eight-year contract—were canceled.

With stints at the helm of the Long Beach Police and a troubled Oakland, California department, Batts came three years ago to reform a department that was called “dysfunctional in effect and to no small degree corrupt” by consultants in 1999. But under the command of his predecessor, Frederick Bealefeld III, crime had fallen—especially murders, which dipped to about 200 a year for the first time in decades. The decline came in part amid a clampdown at all levels. On the street, tens of thousands of arrests were made without probable cause. Rank-and-file police were told to keep their mouths shut—and mostly did. And command staff was gagged by contract even after retirement. Despite the improving crime numbers, the department was still in quiet crisis, and many citizens continued to complain about crime reports not taken, rude police, and routine brutality.

Batts hoped to build on Bealefeld’s strengths while reforming the problem areas. He promised to restore the community’s trust, but by failing to follow through with initiatives, relying on consultants and “best practices” without getting buy-in from the rank-and-file, and making changes to deployment and strategy seemingly in reaction to events—and Mayor Rawlings-Blake—he left the department functionally directionless.

That’s the larger theme of the “After Action Review” police union officials released (coincidentally, according to the mayor) just hours before Batts was relieved of his post that detailed the failures of leadership during the Baltimore Uprising.

“We were basically marched out in the street and lined up in front of the increasingly angry mob of people,” an officer quoted in the report says of Monday, April 27 near Mondawmin.

The officer’s description is worth quoting at length: “The manner in which we were lined up left us exposed and out flanked and this basically continued for an extended period of time. We were just pulled back and forth by supervisors yelling to form lines in random patterns and places with no real purpose. On one instance, a member of upper command was making an arrest. The crowd began to move forward to disrupt the process at which time the upper command staff officer retrieved mace and deployed some, not only spraying the crowd but spraying officers down wind, myself included. I began to tear and violently cough. After this incident, we formed another line in the street and at this point, I believed that we were now going to do something to try and control or disperse the crowd. This is when the crowd began to throw rocks, bricks and chunks of concrete. At first, there were just a few objects being thrown. But when the crowd realized that we were not moving forward and not engaging them, they began to throw more and more objects/rocks, all getting bigger in size. I had never in my 14-year career been as afraid as I was at that moment. I was struck with a piece of concrete that I did not see coming. The blow buckled me to my knees. I can recall Commissioner Batts addressing the officers at headquarters prior to going out on the street. He pretty much patted himself on the back making statements like. ‘I have been in five riots and I will assure you that this is the real deal.’ With a potential riot looming, command staff was more concerned with officers not wearing black gloves and looking intimidating. With all this ‘experience’ and beforehand knowledge at Commissioner Batts’ disposal, he still led us officers to slaughter. We were ill-equipped, overwhelmed and sent out with no less lethal crowd control weapons or real secondary plan. We were given the order to stand down, yet we could not retreat or defend ourselves. It wasn’t until after all of the officers were injured that we received riot equipment.”

As depicted in the union’s report, Batts’ leadership during the riots exemplified for many officers the reactive, haphazard style they saw in him all along. The riots exacerbated the rift between FOP Lodge 3 President Gene Ryan and Batts. Ryan repeatedly blasted department and City Hall leadership for withholding needed documents and failures of leadership. Batts fired back, seeking to paint Ryan as disingenuous and unreasonable.

Batts could not win the hearts and minds of the rank-and-file officers. He apologized for getting them hurt, but he also promised more would be fired for various crimes and infractions.

Arrest rates plummeted in May and June as murders spiked.

Public embarrassment continued into July as a photo circulated of a sign still posted inside a police transport van. “Enjoy Your Ride, Cuz We Sure Will,” it said—ominous in the wake of Gray’s death, which appears to have resulted from a “rough ride” in a similar van. Police spokespeople said the department was investigating the sign, which looked much like signs seen on wagons in years past. That the department had not seen to remove it during the aftermath of Gray’s death suggested that the commissioner and his staff had lost touch with the rank and file.

Then last week Connor Meek published an Op-Ed in The Sun about his experience with police after he was mugged for his bicycle on the Gwynns Falls Trail. He walked to the district police station and was told by an officer there that it was closed after 7 p.m., then told he was at the wrong district. Even as the department scrambled and ordered districts to remain open 24 hours, one of the officers Meek had dealt with took to Facebook to chastise him, saying essentially that he was in public near dusk and so should not have expected to be safe. The Facebook posts quickly disappeared after City Paper called attention to them.

“This incident is alarming and disappointing,” department spokesman Det. Jeremy Silbert said about the events Meek described. “We want to assure our communities the Baltimore Police Department is here to serve them and ensure their safety, regardless of the time of day. Earlier today, Chief of Patrol, Colonel Darryl DeSousa, has ordered all police districts to maintain lobbies that are accessible to the public 24 hours a day. In the past, some districts have had to temporarily close their front desks during the overnight hours due to manpower shortages.”

Meek’s piece prompted much discussion, including a lengthy Reddit thread, where several people claiming to be cops or know cops say the problem is a huge and recent drain of able bodies from the department.

Asked about a “manpower shortage,” Silbert told City Paper via email that, as of July 13, the BPD has 2,740 “sworn members,” including those who are out on leave—medical or otherwise—or suspended or on light duty. That’s down 2.4 percent from January, when there were 2,807 officers and down 4.3 percent from last July, when there were 2,866 officers.

In the weeks after the riots, the reduction in manpower was compounded by an apparent slowdown by the rank-and-file, who made 43 percent fewer arrests in May than they did in April, even as homicides soared to 42 in May, the most in 25 years.

The central stat driving Baltimore Police (and much of its politics) is homicides. “Too many continue to die,” Rawlings-Blake said at the July 8 press conference announcing Batts’ departure, “including three just last night and another today.” The carnage that began before the unrest associated with Gray’s death has pushed Baltimore’s murder rate toward a 300-per-year pace not seen since the early 2000s. Under Batts the department appeared powerless to stem the violence.

At the July 6 press conference Davis described an “uptick in particular of outrages involving juveniles.” He described a 15-year-old boy who “was stabbed to death by a 13-year-old in an argument over a cellphone.” He said a concerned family member of the perpetrator had told police what happened. “Please keep calling us,” Davis concluded. “We want to continue this streak of arrests and apprehensions.”

Davis will have to work hard to catch the murderers in Baltimore’s midst. Beset by shortages of personnel, with morale still low, he’ll have to win the trust of the police officers and the communities that feel antagonized by them. At the start of his tenure he was shadowed by the mayor, whose spokesman, Kevin Harris, told The Sun she is “engaged. She wants to make sure the interim commissioner is [. . .] getting a very clear signal about what she wants.”

This year’s homicide “clearance rate”—that is, the percentage of murders in which police arrest someone and charge them with the crime—is under 40 percent. Officials at the July 6 press conference said the figure was above 60 percent earlier this year, but over the past four or five years it had averaged in the mid-40s, which was characterized as “just above average” compared to other cities that report the figure to the FBI.

 

Copyright © 2018, Baltimore City Paper, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Privacy Policy
45°