Anthony W. Batts, who was fired Wednesday as Baltimore’s police commissioner, lacked street cred with the cops under his command and residents of the grittier neighborhoods, but within the tight-knit circle of this country’s policing elite he was a star.
That may have been his problem.
Batts’ loyal circle of academics, consultants and Washington D.C. insiders promoted his career, and became his informal brain trust during his troubled three-year tenure in Baltimore. It seems fitting that when Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake summoned Batts to her office to fire him, her phone call reached him at a Baltimore hotel, where he was discussing policing strategies at a meeting organized by an influential Washington think tank, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), which had put Batts on the short list for the Baltimore job in the first place.
But a close look at the 54-year-old’s career suggests that his fluency in the theories of modern policing masked an inability to connect with the cities that hired him or to win the trust of the police he was hired to lead.
Batts came to town as the darling of progressive police reformers, who were excited by his PhD in public administration and the enlightened views he honed researching at Harvard rather than his record as an urban police chief. But in Baltimore he was regarded by the rank and file as a carpetbagger and an egghead — misgivings that turned to open hostility after scores of officers were injured in riots following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody.
“What we need,” Councilman Brandon M. Scott, an ally of the mayor, told The New York Times Wednesday, “is a new commissioner, someone who understands Baltimore, someone who has the respect of the citizens, respect of the business community, the religious community and the officers, and who can bring everybody together.”
When he was discovered by the policing elite, Batts had risen through the ranks to become the chief in Long Beach, California, a relatively calm coastal city with a police force of about 1,000 officers.
In 2009 he left that job for a tougher assignment heading the police department in Oakland, which was in its sixth year of federal court oversight imposed by the settlement of a police brutality lawsuit. He quickly became frustrated by the federal monitoring.
“You have to pass everything by federal court,” Batts complained to a newspaper reporter. “I don’t have time to go through all of these people and ask their permission.”
Instead of sticking it out in Oakland, Batts put in for a position at the San Jose Police Department. He didn’t get the job, but his attempted desertion infuriated Oakland’s mayor and police rank and file.
He stepped down as Oakland’s police chief a few months later and wrote in his resignation letter: “I answered the call as a reform minded chief,” but found myself “with limited control, but full accountability.”
After Oakland, Batts returned to Harvard and plotted his next move. By then he was close to an informal cadre of policing intellectuals, who moved from city to city, sometimes running departments and sometimes working as consultants, and shared theories of modern day law enforcement such as “problem-oriented policing” and “collaborative reform.”
In 2012, Batts was presented with another shot at leading an urban police department, in Baltimore. The city hired the D.C. police forum, PERF, to help find a new commissioner, and the think tank identified Batts among several candidates. His tumultuous tenure in Oakland was not a handicap, said PERF executive director Chuck Wexler in an interview.
“Oakland was a complicated city,” Wexler said. “He had his challenges in Oakland and the mayor” — Rawlings-Blake — “knew that going in.”
Batts succeeded a well-regarded Baltimore Police Department veteran, Frederick H. Bealefeld, who finished his term with the lowest murder rate the city had seen in 14 years — a hard act to follow. Mayor Rawlings-Blake’s decision to hire Batts was met with skepticism from City Council members and black church leaders, who preferred a local commander, a 20-year veteran of the force. But their doubts were temporarily alleviated by Batts’ reputation as a “change agent” and a “reform chief,” touted by the biggest names in law enforcement.
“Tony Batts is one of the best there is in American policing today,” William J. Bratton, probably the foremost member of the police intellectual fraternity, gushed at the time in a Baltimore Sun interview. “Tony is best left alone. Tell him what you want, what your goals are, and he'll get you there. I hope based on recent experiences in Baltimore that your mayor is smart enough to realize she's picked one of the best, who will share her vision, and leave him to it.”
Less than a year later, the city hired Bratton and his business associate Robert Wasserman on a $285,834 contract to design a crime-fighting plan and a strategy for improving police-community relations. (A lifelong policing expert who has held senior policing jobs in Dayton, Boston and Houston, Wasserman, as a consultant, had helped to recruit Batts to the Oakland police job.)
Batts continued to turn to his circle of policing theorists as consultants. Hillard Heintze, a security management firm co-founded by former Chicago superintendent Terry Hillard, received a $1.125 million federal grant to recommend ways the Baltimore police could reduce the use of excessive force.
While that report was in the works, the city erupted in riots. The streets filled with residents inflamed by the death of Freddie Gray in the back of a police van. (To the surprise of many, the Baltimore State's Attorney eventually charged six police officers in connection with Gray’s death).
And Batts’ career, at least in Baltimore, began to implode.
The local police union criticized Batts for telling officers not to engage with the protestors and for failing to give police enough riot gear. “More than 200 police officers from the region who responded to assist in the defense of life and property were injured - several severely,” union officials wrote in its “After Action Review,” which was released the day Batts was fired.
Residents accused demoralized police officers of retreating from confrontation and curtailing patrols, contributing to the highest monthly homicide rate — 43 in May — since the early 1970s. Batts responded by asking city officials to hire PERF, for $23,500, to come up with a plan to prevent another widespread civil disturbance.
Batts was in a Baltimore hotel, discussing that project with the consultants, his police command staff and officials from the National Guard and the Maryland State Police, when he was told to report to the mayor immediately.
“Too many continue to die on our streets,” she told reporters, announcing Batts’ departure.
In the aftermath of his downfall, Batts’ friends in the policing, academic and political worlds have stood by him.
Laurie Robinson, the co-chair of the White House’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, said in an interview that the news of Batts’ premature departure was saddening, but not surprising.
“Being a change agent in any field, you can’t expect to be loved by the people whose institutions are being subject to change,” Robinson said. “He will still be well regarded by his colleagues in the policing world.”