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Crime & Justiceby Brew Editors7:16 pmJan 2, 20140

Best of 2013: Policing and crime in the Batts era

ANALYSIS: We examined a police department described as disconnected from the people it serves. Here are some of our posts from 2013.

Above: After handing over firearms to police at a 2014 Laptops for Guns event, people line up for remodeled Dell laptops. (Fern Shen)

Last June, Baltimore police spokesman, Anthony Guglielmi, got into hot water for saying it.

“We’re pretty satisfied with the way the city is headed violence-wise” was his blasé-sounding response to a weekend of violence that left 20 wounded and 8 dead. Guglielmi was demoted by Police Chief Anthony W. Batts for his perceived insensitivity.

Six months later, Batts explained away Baltimore’s four-year-high in violent deaths – against a trend of lower homicides nationally – in much the same tone.

“It’s very localized,” he told WBAL’s Jayne Miller in a year-end interview, “and, unfortunately, it’s with African American men who are involved in the drug trade and 80 to 85% of the victims are involved in the drug trade going back and forth.”

“For everyday citizens,” he continued, crime is dropping. He cited a number of categories – burglaries, rapes and breaking into cars – as examples of lower numbers, and reiterated that murders are “localized” and, by implication, of no great concern in upper-income and harbor-front neighborhoods.

Talk, Consultants and a Unique Exchange Program

During his first full year in office, Batts spent much time explaining his plans for the BCPD to be more responsive to communities – and paying pricey consultants to develop a multi-year strategy for his department.

The Brew doesn’t cover the daily drumbeat of crime, but we try to step back and examine the way the Police Department operates. An essential question is whether a city, ranked 21st in U.S. population, is receiving an adequate level of service from the eighth largest municipal police force, with an annual budget of $450 million and 3,444 funded full-time positions.

That question does not just involve the police, but business practices that can help or hinder area law enforcement. One trend we explored was the rash of cellphone thefts in the city.

We wrote about how the availability of kiosks offering “instant cash” for used cellphones may be contributing to the crime wave. (In September, the City Council passed an ordinance banning such kiosks in the city.)

We also covered a highly successful program, initiated by entrepreneur Lance Lucas, to get guns off the street by exchanging weapons for reconditioned computers. “Stop Shooting, Start Coding” was a welcome change to the prevailing narrative.


Here are some quotable quotes from our stories on policing and crime in 2013:

Satisfied? Police spokesman’s remarks on bloody weekend stir outrage

Commenters, prompted by former Sun reporter-turned crime-and-mystery-novelist [Laura] Lippman, piled on. “I’d like to make that police spokesman repeat that statement face to face to the families of the dead and wounded,” Marjorie Tucker wrote. “What they really mean is that as long as no white people, famous people, tourists, or kids were killed they’re cool with it,” Brian Quertermous added.

The consultants' report identified wary relations between residents and the police as a factor in the city's

A $287,000 report commissioned by Chief Batts identified wary relations between residents and the police as a factor in BCPD’s “reactive mode, responding to calls, but doing little else to assert police control.” (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Police chief defends himself in wake of murder spike

When the shooting spree started on Friday night, [Batts] said his chief field commander was giving him constant updates, “and I was giving him directions every single hour this weekend, so I was aware” of the violence. “All weekend,” he continued, “we knew what was taking place. We were trying to get in front of it very quickly.” Where he faulted the department – and himself – was on public relations. “Our messaging this weekend was terrible.”

Baltimore residents line up to get laptops in exchange for guns

Wrapped in t-shirts, towels, newspaper and plastic bags, guns of all kinds were removed from pockets, purses and shopping bags. There were lots of small-caliber “Saturday Night Special”-type handguns, a .357 Magnum in a cardboard box, and several long guns, including a double-barreled shotgun, the kind that can be sawed off and made concealable. Marcel Simpson, 56, didn’t want to get into specifics about what kind of gun he brought in or why he had it. “I came in to do the right thing – to get it off the street,” he said.

Illegal dirt bikes, featured in film, decried by neighborhoods, now targeted by police

As the police and anyone who travels Reisterstown Road near Druid Hill Park know, that area is the center of Baltimore’s defiant, wheelie-popping illegal dirt bike culture. Admiration for that culture clearly frustrates the police: “The public sits on the side of that hill there and watches!”

Meet Baltimore’s $560-an-hour cop consultant

William J. Bratton, the ex-police chief of Los Angeles and New York, will be paid more than $50,000 as a consultant on a policing plan ordered by Baltimore Police Chief Anthony W. Batts. Bratton and Batts are self-described “close friends” dating back to their days in California law enforcement (Batts was chief of police at Long Beach when Bratton headed LAPD). . . Bratton’s payout of $53,785 for 96 hours of consulting – including $5,200 for travel and $4,617 for unspecified administrative overhead – comes to $560 an hour.

 A dismal snapshot of law enforcement in Baltimore

Even taking into account that the consultants had an incentive to find fault (if only to justify their sizeable paycheck), the report paints a disturbing portrait of a dysfunctional department. . . In the growing area of homicides – up to 211 so far this year – there are multiple administrative problems. The consultants praise the concept of the District Detective Units (DDUs), saying decentralization helps police nurture informants, [but] the nine DDUs have been understaffed and subject to a wide range in the quality of their management.

Mayor Rawlings-Blake addresses the uptick in homicides with Police Chief Batts. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Mayor Rawlings-Blake addresses the uptick in homicides with Police Chief Batts. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Why the police don’t walk the beat and other riddles

Bellmio produced statistics showing that calls for service reach a low of 20 calls or fewer per hour between 3 and 6 a.m., especially on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. But calls spike to more than 120 an hour on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. As a result, police are consistently overstaffed by as many as 100 officers between 4 a.m. and 8 a.m., but understaffed by 50-100 officers between 4 p.m. and midnight – the very time of the day when crime and violence peak.

A tale of no-show Baltimore police

If the officials discussing what’s ailing Baltimore law enforcement want to make sure their policy and planning talk is rooted in reality, they should probably do like the archetypal beat cop of our dreams and walk the streets. Failing that, they could simply take to the social networks. The Facebook pages of Baltimore neighborhoods are replete with tales of kicked-in basement doors, broken-into apartments and brazenly-snatched purses – often with harsh criticism of the police response.

Do kiosks that pay cash for used cellphones promote theft?

There are now 16 of the ATM-sized kiosks in area shopping malls, with many just outside the city line. Do these automated stations, billed as “green” because they keep trashed electronics out of landfills, encourage cell phone theft by giving criminals an easy way to unload stolen mobile devices? D.C. police chief Cathy L. Lanier thinks so. She has flat-out blamed so-called “reverse vending machines,” made by San Diego-based ecoATM, for doing just that in her city.

Guns, fists, ropes – tools of the trade for cellphone thieves

The student was with a friend on North Broadway, near the Hopkins Medical Campus, and had just called for a cab using his iPhone 5. Realizing what was about to go down, he put his phone in his back pocket. “Let me see your phone,” one of the three males in the group said. When the victim refused, one of the youths grabbed his right arm, the other pushed him into the fence by the sidewalk, and the third grabbed the cellphone out of his hand.

Council approves – and mayor supports – ban on cash-for-phone kiosks

The ordinance making so-called Automated Purchasing Machines (APMs) a prohibited use in the city came in the wake of this year’s wave of cellphone theft focusing on Baltimore-area walkers and joggers. “These machines have been known to attract criminal activity, making it harder for communities to be safe,” Rawlings-Blake said in the statement released late today to the media.

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