What Will He Do?
Baltimore’s homicide spike tests the new commissioner
Published: July 3, 2013
The questions underlying the violence that spiked in Baltimore as summer began are simple: What has changed on the street, and what has changed about the police department’s strategic response?
The outrages that prompted those questions—32 shot in the summer’s first week, a dozen murdered between Friday afternoon, June 21 and Thursday morning, June 27—spawned five police press conferences and a City Council hearing, where the police finally answered the first question with details about club fights and gang developments that spurred much of the recent violence, but not much about the second.
To the second question, Police Commissioner Anthony Batts gave four answers:
1. He’s a planner.
2. Baltimore police intelligence is the finest it’s ever been.
3. Batts’ community policing strategy is bearing fruit; complaints are down.
4. The department is ramping up its public relations effort.
The hearing came on June 26, four days after the murderous firestorm that, publicly at least, centered as much on a police spokesperson’s statement (“all in all, we’re pretty satisfied”) as it did on the carnage enveloping the east, west, and northern sections of the city. (Spokesperson Anthony Guglielmi, whose scripted statement was obviously nothing more or less than he had been instructed to say for months, was reassigned shortly after.) Scheduled just two days before, the informational discussion about the department’s “Summer Deployment Plans” starred Deputy Commissioner John P. Skinner, who dropped statistics and names for most of an hour as council members questioned him.
It was more information than had been forthcoming over the week, which began when Batts appeared—with an entourage of command staff and foot patrolmen—on the 700 block of North Kenwood Avenue to press the flesh and demonstrate that he cares about the fact that five people were shot there on Saturday morning. The still-cameras clicked and the video pixels impressed themselves on the hard drives as Batts asserted that he had been in contact “this weekend” with U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein, hatching a plan for the deployment of the federal government’s alphabet soup of law enforcement agencies.
“I am a planner,” Batts tells the council’s Public Safety Committee on June 26. “That’s one of the things I brought to this organization.” He says he is even now building a “long-range, three- to five-year strategic crime plan for the city.”
The U.S. attorney’s office confirms that Batts has been in “regular” contact but offers no details. “As you know, the reduction of violent crime is a priority for our office,” a spokesperson writes City Paper in an email. “We currently have a number of ongoing investigations, but nothing that we can talk about.”
Greg Shipley, spokesperson for the Maryland State Police, says Batts contacted State Police Secretary Col. Marcus Brown “on Monday, so I can confirm that they have talked.”
But the nature of the relationship between the state police and the Baltimore police has been steady, Shipley says on Wednesday, June 26, two hours before the council hearing: “There has been cooperation for quite some time.”
Basically, state troopers patrol big events and do traffic enforcement and fugitive initiatives, Shipley says, cruising on weekend evenings with electronic license-plate readers that check for wanted criminals. They also look for money and drugs heading in and out of the city.
But Shipley says he knows of nothing new—not yet, anyway.
Before the Wednesday evening hearing begins, Councilman Bill Henry tells Batts not to take offense at anything he might say. “I mean no disrespect to the department,” he says, “but I don’t believe we can police our way out of this problem.”
On that point, Batts agrees, asking in his official remarks for other city agencies to get involved in efforts to stem the violence: “We cannot solve our problems in a police-centric way.”
In short, Batts is sticking to the strategy he outlined last October at his confirmation hearing. He is augmenting it with more police, more foot patrols, more overtime, and more help from outside agencies, but the main strategy he developed on his arrival last fall will remain in place.
That strategy differs from his predecessors’. First, Batts has refocused resources on lower-level crimes, like burglaries, while simultaneously ratcheting down the pressure on low-level offenders in an attempt to win support in the city’s rougher neighborhoods. Whereas police would routinely “humble” men on street corners for littering or open containers before, the focus now is more solidly on what the department calls VROs—Violent Repeat Offenders. Batts did this in part by rebranding and putting under the patrol division the Violent Crimes Impact Section, a roving squad of plain-clothed cops that racked up arrests of VROs but drew citizen complaints about excessive force and unaccountability—and prosecutions for corruption. He also created a Community Partnership Division, tapping Eastern District Major Melvin Russell to command it and promoting him to lieutenant colonel.
At the City Council hearing, Batts shows the emotion his earlier appearances lacked. “These are not statistics,” he says, almost yelling. “These are people with hopes and dreams and aspirations!” The murders and shootings are unacceptable, and the department is taking “proactive steps to get on top of it.”
Deputy Commissioner Skinner takes the lead at the hearing, flashing statistics on the wall: 82 VROs arrested this year, 530 bad guys with guns arrested, and 970 firearms seized. “That’s an incredible number,” Skinner says.
The department has beefed up intelligence and sped up its use, Skinner tells the council committee, led by Warren Branch (13th District).
The “hundreds of officers on foot each night” have suppressed crime all year, Skinner says—up until mid-June. He relates the recent history of violence spikes, beginning with a triple murder on Fulton Avenue that took the lives of Tyreka Martin, 20, Brian Powell, 21, and Kishawna Pinder, 20. (Skinner says this happened in February but it was actually on March 19.) The department’s response, which included a flood of foot patrols and community outreach, tamped down the violence, Skinner says.
At the beginning of June the city had 88 murders, same as last year. But with 10 homicides between June 16 and June 25 and 23 non-fatal shootings, the numbers suddenly looked out of control.
Skinner says one string of shootings has roots in a fight downtown at Club Mirage at the beginning of June. That fight led to six other incidents, Skinner says, including one on the west side.
“All of this,” Skinner continues, “is driven by a drug organization in East Baltimore.” One of the victims of the June 22 quintuple shooting on the 700 block of North Kenwood Avenue, Skinner says, “has strong ties to Steven Blackwell,” a drug dealer serving 20 years in federal prison.
It was the Blackwell organization’s feud with a rival crew in the summer of 2009 that led to a similar spate of shootings and murders, including a shocking attack on a summer picnic in which a dozen people were shot, including Blackwell himself.
“Several of his underlings were on Kenwood,” Skinner tells the council committee.
Other shootings stemmed from an after-hours club in Northwest Baltimore, Skinner says, while on 26th Street—where Danquel Darden was found shot in the face on June 22—“an individual was shot in a friend’s bedroom in a friend’s house. We’re looking for the friend right now.”
Skinner concludes with statistics: As of June 26 “we’re nine above” last year’s murder tally, “even though violent crime in the city is down 5 percent.”
Councilman Brandon Scott (2nd District) sounds impatient. “Every time we come in here, you talk about the gangs—personally I don’t care what the names are,” he tells Skinner. “But why don’t you know when there is budding warfare? Are the CIs [confidential informants] not on the ball?”
“This has been another kind of evolving circumstance involving those gangs,” Skinner says. “I think our intelligence is better now than it’s ever been.”
It’s hard to square Batts and Skinner’s claim that the department’s intelligence has much improved with the fact that gang wars have seemingly broken out. The response to the violence, too, appears less planned than scrambled. The department has “started a warrant initiative with federal marshals,” Skinner says, and put more police on the street at night. “Everyone with a gun is out there,” he says.
The deployment involves overlapping shifts “this weekend, next weekend, and ongoing,” Skinner tells the council committee. The second and third shifts will each be 12 hours, with eight hours of double-coverage from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. each night (and no shift-change lull). Federal task force teams have been mobilized and have already visited known criminals, putting them on notice that they will be held responsible for shootings and murders.
Maryland Transportation Authority Police and Baltimore City sheriffs are patrolling on Thursday through Saturday nights, Skinner says. Results are ongoing. He flashes a photo of Cush Wright-El, who he says was “directly involved in the triple shooting” at the northwest after-hours club.
“I see that right away you can identify the guy who did the triple shooting on Reisterstown Road,” Councilwoman Rochelle “Rikki” Spector (5th District) says. “But how long have we known he’s a bad guy?”
(Online court records indicate that Wright-El was acquitted of murder in 2011. He was convicted of the same charge in 2008 and sentenced to three years in prison.)
Batts’ big change, his big promise, is transparency. The problem he faces is not bad tactics, and it’s not bad strategy, he says. It’s bad—or not enough—communication. “We’re going to start opening up the department, showing what we’re doing,” Batts tells the council. “We will be on the media every day, or every day there is an incident, so people don’t think that there was a murder or a shooting and no one is doing anything.”
Skinner reassures the council that things are well in hand, contingencies planned for. The Fourth of July plan has been in the works for more than a month, he says: “I want to say that, absolutely, we are prepared.”
> Email Edward Ericson Jr.