Baltimore commish: Focus on gangs, guns,violent offenders
Commissioner Anthony W. Batts wants to stop sending officers out on low-priority 911 calls
By Justin George, Justin Fenton and Luke Broadwater
The Baltimore Sun
BALTIMORE — Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts wants to stop sending officers out on low-priority 911 calls, expand foot patrols and create a unit focused on investigating incidents in which police use force.
He proposes assigning homicide detectives to city neighborhoods, beefing up investigative units and sending elite plainclothes officers to more police districts. He wants to install tiny cameras on officers' uniforms and put computer tablets in their hands.
A year on the job, Batts on Thursday unveiled an overarching crime-fighting plan he said would bring "much-needed" and "long-sought-after reform" in a department he said has relied too heavily on outdated procedures and technology.
In a nearly 200-page report, compiled with outside consultants at a cost of $285,000, Batts calls for changes in nearly every area of the city department.
"This is our corporate business plan," he said. "Reform and change comes slowly, but it will come."
More than 70 local leaders — city officials, police commanders, academics and neighborhood activists — joined Batts and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake at City Hall as they announced the new strategy.
"We understand that crime is not static — what worked in previous years may not work now or in the future," Rawlings-Blake said."The report speaks some honest and hard truths about where we have to make improvements while acknowledging that many of our current efforts are taking us in the right direction."
The report mentions, but doesn't offer proposals to address, long-standing issues such as the department's district boundaries, which have remained the same for more than three decades while the city's population shifted dramatically.
And while a police survey reports that just 9 percent of officers describe morale as "good," the plan says little about how to improve the department's working conditions.
Noticeably absent from the unveiling was Robert F. Cherry, president of the city's Fraternal Order of Police. The union last year put out its own blueprint for the department, with proposals to improve recruiting and retention, redraw police boundaries and bolster community policing.
Reached after the City Hall event, Cherry was terse.
"We're going to read the entire report," he said. "In those instances where we agree or disagree, we'll bring it to the attention of the police commissioner and mayor."
Some questioned whether such sweeping changes were realistic for a department struggling with budget and attrition problems, and which was criticized this week by the American Civil Liberties Union for failing to keep adequate records or maintain oversight of police stops and individual searches.
Batts is calling for 46 new general orders — the regulations by which officers operate — and 21 new forms, even as the department struggles to adhere to guidelines already in place. For years, a review found, police stopped conducting training reviews of police-involved shootings.
Most of the recommendations were classified as "budget neutral," but many could increase costs. Batts proposes hiring more consultants, buying new technology, increasing staff in key areas and transforming the city's Watch Center for surveillance operations into a "bona fide, departmental intelligence fusion center."
"I don't think we're biting off more than we can chew," Batts said. "We're going to win the confidence back from all angles of this community."
City Councilman Brandon Scott, the vice chair of the public safety committee, said the report largely summarized many of the agency's continuing efforts.
"Even though I don't think we needed to spend $250,000 for this document, it's evident that all of us agree that these are the things we need to be doing," Scott said. "The devil is in the details of how we come together to make it happen."
City Councilman Robert Curran has been pushing for years to have district boundaries redrawn to gain more resources in the Northeastern District he represents.
The plan refers to the possibility of dividing the 17-square-mile district in half and running a pilot program in which officers wouldn't be tethered to specific police posts. But Curran didn't see changes outlined that will add officers.
"I'm hoping it means in the next six to eight months that they will come up with a plan to get more officers here," he said.
Batts said it could take another year.
Doug Ward, the director of the Division of Public Safety Leadership at the Johns Hopkins School of Education, said plans as broad as Batts' can be difficult to implement but are necessary.
"The changing of an organization and its culture takes years. But you have to start somewhere," he said. "If you do it right, it has more of a chance of working than doing nothing or just putting out fires."
Ward said Batts is a "guy who gets it."
"If anybody can pull it off, he can," he said.
William Bratton, who has headed the police departments of New York, Los Angeles and Boston, was one of the architects of the plan. He said Batts directed the consultants to come up with "measurable goals that he, himself, could be held accountable for."
Bratton said he believed the plan would help drive down homicides and crime in Baltimore.
"Crime — the good news about it is — it's suppressible," he said. "Even if you press it down low, there's always the opportunity for it to spike up. That's why you design the systems that can quickly identify that spike and have the solutions to that spike.
Commissioner Batts now has the game plan ... to address those spikes."
Since taking over in late September 2012, Batts has revamped the way detectives present photo lineups to witnesses in conjunction with the Innocence Project, a group that works to free defendants who have been wrongly convicted. The report signals more well-known figures in crime-fighting will be coming to help.
Batts says the department plans to adopt the Operation Ceasefire program, in which a city's most violent offenders are ordered to attend meetings at which they're told law enforcement will bring pressure until shootings stop.
That would be a reunion of city police with Ceasefire founder David Kennedy, who said his previous efforts in the 1990s here failed because of transitions in political and police leadership.
This time around, he said, he has unwavering support from Batts and city officials.
"There's clearly a very, very strong and committed desire on part of the city to make this work," Kennedy said.
George Kelling, one of the authors of the "Broken Windows" theory — often cited as driving down crime in New York City in the 1990s -- is also on tap to help Batts with a campaign to "take back public spaces."
The approach involves focusing on minor offenses such as littering that Batts said would help the city drive down crime around areas like the Pimlico Race Course and Lexington Market.
Batts said some of the changes could take months or years to implement. Others have already been adopted. Still more could require changes to the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights, a state law for police that is one of the most favorable to officers in the country.
A new unit that uses "light duty" officers, including those rehabilitating from injuries, has already begun responding to emergency callers who aren't facing immediate danger by taking police reports over the phone. The setup is intended to keep more patrol officers on the street.
Resources could be a challenge. The report recommended pulling the authority to investigate police-involved shootings from homicide detectives and placing it with a team specifically tasked with probing police use of force. It calls for boosting foot patrols and creating "Emergency Action Teams," bolstering training efforts and increasing the number of officers focused on gangs.
Other recommendations include adding detectives to the Special Enforcement Section. Known previously as the Violent Crimes Impact Section, the plainclothes unit developed a reputation for aggressive policing and corruption and was stripped down.
The report calls for increasing — or perhaps replenishing — its ranks, and expanding it from parts four police districts to cover the entire city.
Police also plan to assign homicide detectives to geographic regions so they can share in gathering and sharing intelligence on suspects with other detectives and units.
Deputy Police Commissioner John Skinner said the proposal, which has been tried before, will be treated as a pilot program before any permanent changes affect the Homicide Unit. Homicide detectives historically have conducted their investigations autonomously.
Sergeants could soon take over internal investigations from rank-and-file detectives to reduce conflicts of interests between officers investigating their own colleagues — a proposal Deputy Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez said will also help increase morale within the department.
Batts said he hoped to improve morale with pay increases and what he said would be a fairer system of promotions, based on performance and not political "cliques."
Highlights of police strategic plan:
— Start a "Ceasefire" initiative to pressure known gang members and offenders
— Assign teams of plainclothes drug and gun "vice" cops to each district
— Establish gang intelligence officers in each district
— Increase foot patrols
— Provide each officer a computer tablet and consider installing cameras on uniforms
— Create an investigative team to review police-involved shootings and other use-of-force incidents
Copyright 2013 The Baltimore Sun
McClatchy-Tribune News Service