The Judas Kiss: Baltimore Police Commish Trashes His Officers

"We are part of the problem[.] ... Now we have to change."  So declared Anthony Batts, the African-American police chief of Baltimore, at a press conference on May 6, 2015.  The man in charge of this minority-majority department since September 2012 denounced his officers, impugned their integrity, and undercut their mission.

No statement of outrage was  issued over the injuries to at least 130 of his officers during the recent riots.  Not an apology was uttered to those business owners who lost everything to looters while the police department failed to respond to calls for help yet tweeted real-time riot information.  Not a word of explanation or remorse was spoken for his dereliction of duty in obeying a stand-down order allegedly issued by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the woman who hired him.  Not a word of anguish was stated for the population that was terrorized on his watch, or the senior citizens whose brand new $16-million center was burned to the ground.  Not a word of praise was mentioned for the brave firefighters who battled both hostile thugs and life-threatening blazes with deliberately sabotaged equipment.  While Batts had no time for any of these appropriate and expectable statements, he found just enough time on May 6, 2015 to express sympathy for the rioters' righteous rebellion against the tyranny of his own police force.

To understand how Anthony Batts could betray his own officers and throw the rule of law under the paddy wagon, you need to look at his past.  Mr. Batts has a troubling record, dubious accomplishments, and a penchant for blaming his failures on externalities.  He also has a real knack for saving his own neck just before the axe falls.

Batts' s lengthiest police affiliation was with the Long Beach, California Police Department (LBPD).  His stint was not exactly unmarred.  It is reported that Mr. Batts had a history of domestic violence against women with whom he had relationships, documented in four to five reports filed against him.  At least two of those reports involved his wife, then-congresswoman Laura Richardson, who was married to Batts between 1995 and 2002.  It is also reported that some of the other domestic violence reports were filed against Batts by female officers under his command at the LBPD.  It is alleged that those domestic violence reports "were kept under lock and key in the police chief's office" and that the crime title and report number on one was changed to indicate a "stolen bicycle" report.  It is also claimed that the existence of the concealed report and the felony crimes committed in the changing of the report title were leveraged by potential whistle-blowers within the LBPD to cover up their own unlawful behavior in a local LBPD scandal referred to as "Lobstergate."  Chief Batts and his command staff apparently ignored disciplinary recommendations, ranging from one-year demotion to an eight-day suspension, and instead issued only written letters of reprimand to all officers involved.

In addition to the domestic violence issues, reports surfaced that Chief Batts resented oversight by the Long Beach city manager, Pat West.  There were also allegations that Batts falsely testified in court during the "Lobstergate" trials in Los Angeles.  One retired LBPD homicide detective described Batts as "a man who will praise you one minute and smite you the next."

While it may be sheer coincidence, after a Public Records Act request was made by a local newspaper for all records related to the chief's domestic violence history, Batts resigned his position in July, 2009.  Some suspected that Batts had left because he feared he might be fired.

Batts was recruited to Oakland by Ron Dellums, an African-American Californian who spent almost 30 years in Congress.  Mayor Dellums's first  "anti-crime" initiative was to suggest hiring ex-felons for Oakland city jobs.  Batts became chief of the Oakland Police Department (OPD)  in October 2009.  At the time, Batts announced the most altruistic of reasons for leaving the LBPD.  He said that after four Oakland police officers were murdered by a parolee, he was inspired to "make a difference."  Oakland's crime problems are notorious, so Batts knew full well what he was stepping up to when he made a three-year commitment to the position. 

Nonetheless, Batts quickly became disenchanted with the job, complaining frequently of too much interference from the mayor and other city officials and inadequate funding.  One year into his contract, he applied for the chief position in San Jose, California.  San Jose conducted a background investigation on Mr. Batts and did not offer him the position. 

Batts honored roughly 2 years of his Oakland contract.  His brief time was memorable for riots, reduced service, an increase in crime, and a decrease in officer morale.  In an exit interview of sorts that Batts gave to a local outlet, the excuses for his disappointing tenure include too much oversight by Mayor Dellums and his successor, low police morale, and an inadequate budget.  The 2010 riots that occurred under his watch were ugly and extensive.  Nonetheless, he congratulated himself for his thoughtful "plan" to deal with the rioters – a plan whereby he allowed businesses to be destroyed and intentionally waited to move in so it "would not look like a police action."  His popularity further waned with his 2010 public announcement that officers would no longer respond to a list of 44 crimes, including burglary and grand theft.  As one commentator observed, how very helpful to the criminals to know in advance what crimes come with a free pass.

In addition to a City Hall review of his management decisions, Federal District Judge Thelton Henderson issued a scathing report slamming Batts for backsliding in the OPD's judicially mandated corruption cleanup efforts.  Direct federal takeover through receivership of the OPD was threatened.  The report was especially damaging to Batts because timely implementation of the federally imposed reforms was a primary reason he was hired.  This highly negative report was released to the city two days before Batts announced his resignation from the department on October 11, 2011.  Batts said at the time of his resignation that he was taking a part-time teaching position at Harvard.  While it is unclear whether he ever taught at Harvard, Mr. Batts's most recent official biography references "participation in a training program" in 2007 at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

In September 2012, Batts re-emerged publicly as the new police commissioner for Baltimore, the eighth largest city force in the nation.  A 19-year department veteran, supported by several City Council members, was passed over in favor of Batts.  Hailed by African-American Mayor Rawlings-Baker as "a major force for good, for reform and for results," Batts proclaimed that he "wanted to take responsibility for every life."

By the end of Batts's first year on the job, homicides and the number of non-fatal shootings were rising for the first time in six years.  The number of officers leaving the department was up 33% over the same period before his arrival.  One council member said there "hasn't been much of a plan."  Even Maryland's Governor O'Malley questioned Batts's approach.  Once again, Batts deflected criticisms by blaming low pay for low department morale and increased departures from the force.  He promised a "turnaround in crime numbers" if a pay increase was approved.

While insufficient money was his constant excuse for bad numbers and low morale, Batts had enough money to hire cronies via various consultant contracts.  In April 2013, the mayor approved the highest of five bids for private evaluation of the Police Department and development of a "vision" for policing Baltimore.  Isn't that Chief Batts's job?  A partner in the group winning the $286,000 contract, Bill Bratton, admitted to being "close friends" with Batts.  Bratton's take under the agreement computed to $560 per hour.  The "policing vision" that Bratton was paid to develop was packaged into a 192-page five-year strategic plan for the BPD and was published November 21, 2013 under Chief Batts's name. 

In October 2014, Batts again found himself in need of outside help to run his department and turned to another friend.  He hired Steven Nottingham, a California man with a California company, who served as Batts's lieutenant while Batts was chief of the LBPD from 2002 to 2009.  This $28,000 contract, approved by Mayor Rawlings-Blake, was for officer instruction in "high-liability use of force encounters." 

It looks as though neither of these contracts did the trick.  In late October 2014, a mere two years into his tenure, Batts and Mayor Rawlings-Blake announced that they had jointly requested that the Department of Justice send in its Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) to fully assess the Police Department and make recommendations for improvement.  The "assessment" was touted as an extensive "collaborative" review of the BPD and appears to be ongoing. 

Notwithstanding the COPS efforts to "fix" the BPD, on May 6, 2015, the mayor asked for yet another DOJ intervention by the Civil Rights Division.  This analysis would be a full-fledged investigation into the "patterns and practices" of the BPD – a meticulous search, as in Ferguson, Missouri, for any evidence of discrimination within the BPD.  While Chief Batts was not at the mayor's side for the announcement, he expressed his support for her request belatedly.

And that pay raise for the officers that Batts claimed would be the cure-all for escalating crime and a flood of departing officers?  Batts finally managed to wrangle hefty raises for 53 top brass and himself.  Under the new scale, the Chief can climb to an annual salary of $230,000.  That is quite a reward for the man who has been put under DOJ  supervision twice now. 

So, once again, Anthony Batts finds himself overwhelmed and ill-equipped to run a police department successfully.  Residents suffer, crime continues to rise, and the police officers continue to flee Baltimore.  Just since Freddie Gray slipped into a coma, there have been dozens of homicides.  None were committed by the police officers so roundly condemned by their chief.      

With Batts's tenure under sharper scrutiny, will Loretta Lynch's DOJ and the mayor continue to shield him from accountability?  Will DOJ intervention be the prelude to federal receivership of the department?  With such an uncertain future, perhaps it is time for the chief, once again, to do what he does best: beat the axe and resign.