When Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts appeared at a recent town hall, a woman stood to ask about police brutality, a touchy topic for both residents and officers. She said she worried for her young nephew, who was frequently stopped by police.
Batts' 10-minute answer ranged from the personal to the practical. He talked about his upbringing in South Central Los Angeles, drawing laughs about the fried bologna sandwiches his family ate to survive. He explained why people must sit cross-legged on curbs for officer safety, but understood police interactions can be demeaning for those detained.
"I can relate, because that's where I come from," Batts told the crowd of about 100 in a conference room at Good Samaritan Hospital. "But not all of my officers come from our communities, so we're trying to give them the tools ... so they can be more empathetic."
The moment is one of many Batts has used to connect with his audience and craft a reputation of a commissioner who is focused on Baltimore's communities. He and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake have held eight public safety forums as they make the rounds of police districts this year, an initiative announced after 2014 began with an ominous 27 murders in 31 days.
The top cop also has forged a hands-on image through a series of incidents in which he got personally involved, from punching a suspect who refused to drop a gun during an arrest to pulling a mother and her teenage son from an overturned car he happened to drive by. The department promoted both incidents on Twitter.
Baltimore's perception of Batts is critical for a man whose performance is questioned whenever the murder rate spikes, and whose tenure may depend on the political winds. As the face of the department, his image takes on added significance in a city like Baltimore, where resident distrust is often cited as a reason witnesses to crimes refuse to cooperate.
Batts, 53, came to Baltimore with an ambitious reform agenda and recently said only 40 percent of the plan has been implemented. He also must hold the line on the much-watched murder rate. Homicides are down more than 16 percent this year, along with all violent crime, after jumping in 2013 to the highest level in four years.
"It was very important for me to find someone who cared about the community and would connect with the community. He has both of those qualities," Rawlings-Blake said. "A lot of people are skeptical of outsiders, and he understands he has to put in the work to develop these relationships."
Some say Batts still has work to do in community relations. Brian Hayden, a 43-year-old resident of Fells Prospect, said he comes off like a politician.
"I'm rooting for him; I want him to do a good job. But he seems to be saying too much of the right things," Hayden said. "When it gets down to the nitty-gritty, it almost seems like he's just talking over people. It's hard to translate it to the ground."
Maurice Scott, 64, of Rosemont found Batts to be sincere after seeing him at a town hall in Southeast Baltimore, but still questioned whether his West Coast philosophy would work here.
"I was asking him about getting drug dealers off the block, and he was talking about trying to get community involvement," Scott said. "In my community, if you come around there with the police, you are targeted. … It's not our job to lock up the bad guys."
Matt Jablow, a former chief spokesman for three Baltimore police commissioners, said their appearances in the community help provide a window into the behind-the-scenes police work, while ensuring sure they stay connected with the issues on the street.
"It's got to be a prolonged effort," Jablow said. "It's fine when things are good to have people pulling for you, but it's even more important if things go south. People know when a commissioner is showing up for a PR opportunity."
Batts declined to comment for this article.
In Long Beach, Calif., where Batts spent most of his career, and Oakland, where he left after two tumultuous years, Batts developed a reputation as a charismatic, reform-minded leader. But in Oakland, that reputation took a hit — the San Francisco Chronicle once reported that among officers he was regarded as a "showboat," "overrated," and "in it just for himself." He also failed to advance his agenda with City Hall.
During his first year in Baltimore, Batts faced questions about his crime strategy and a decision to hire consultants to revamp the agency. Attrition spiked, and the agency dealt with a series of high-profile controversies, such as in-custody deaths and a rogue training exercise during which a recruit was shot in the head.
But this year, Batts' detractors have quieted.
City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who has been critical of Batts, now says the commissioner is "on the right track" and "growing into this job." The city police union's president, Robert F. Cherry, said that while he disagrees with some of Batts' policies, "he's on the street, he's listening to these community members, and he's also listening to the officers."
Even a relative of Tyrone West, whose family holds regular protests to call attention to West's death in the custody of police officers last year, gave Batts high marks for his willingness to talk to them even while continuing to criticize the agency's handling of the case and naming him as a defendant in the family's lawsuit over the case.