Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts says law enforcement leaders have the bully pulpit and must use it to start and shape conversations about the relationship between police departments and the communities they serve. Batts argues that the problem of police-community relations goes beyond issues of Black and White, and that police organizations have to be willing to acknowledge when they have been part of broader structural problems.

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Since college, Batts has spent 33 years in law enforcement, with most of that time in Long Beach, Calif. The conversation on the west coast, Batts says, is less about Black and White racism – as it is here in Baltimore – and more about diversity. That is a conversation that must take place in Baltimore as well.

“Part of what I’ve tried to do in my first two years here is kind of spark that conversation, because I think it plays out other ways,” said Batts. “It plays out in communities, it plays out in education, it plays out in enforcement of rules throughout the community as a whole.

“The good thing for us . . . is that the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) is 52 percent minority in a city that’s 60 percent minority, so we’re one of the most diverse based on population and the reflection of our community. We come close but we still have those trust issues between the community and the police organization.”

The conversation, then, is not about whether police officers themselves are racist, but the role law enforcement plays in the community at large and within the broader social structure. “I have to get police departments to the point where we have to say that we’ve been part of the problem. And what I mean by that is, we have to take an honest look in a mirror and say, how have we helped, how have we exacerbated problems that were out there, and how do we then adapt and change and become part of the solution?” Batts said.

Effective law enforcement, says Batts, is not determined from the perspective of the police alone, but in conversation with the community. “I feel this with all my heart, most police officers feel they are doing God’s work … they’re coming out here, trying to make a difference, and trying to help,” said Batts. “But the leadership of organizations has to make sure that the work that we’re doing corresponds to what the community wants us to do in a way that the community sees .”

Batts gives the example of BPD helping to drive down the homicide rate in Baltimore to “one of the lowest rates in the history of this city,” noting that, while this may be a success from a law enforcement perspective, success has to be measured in tandem with community expectations.

“We still were off target with what the community wanted us to do,” said Batts.

The protests that have shaped much of the national conversation on policing since August, says Batts, are not solely about police. While police may be the face of government as one of the few branches with which citizens engage on a regular basis, the displeasure with police, he feels, likely signals a broader displeasure with government and the policies that originate there, which police enforce.

“If you had police departments today that were aligned with the communities, would we still not have to address the poverty? Would we still not have to address the educational levels? Would we still not have to address that fact that we have Black on Black crime, that’s taken the vast majority of lives out there in the community?” said Batts.

He adds that one of the conversations among law enforcement leaders nationally is what role the police actually play in this broader discussion – are police really the root of the problem, or simply the face?

While Batts says that law enforcement leaders must play a role in such conversations in the public sphere, he was reluctant to discuss whether Maryland’s law enforcement officers bill of rights (LEOBR) needs to be amended. He noted that Maryland’s LEOBR originated in the 1970s based on political considerations he never played a role in.  “It is incumbent upon our legislators to sit down and craft documents . . . that fit their constituency,” said Batts, adding later, “ are laws that are put in place for different reasons – to protect police officer rights and also to protect citizen rights. It’s up to the legislature to balance those.”

On whether strengthened civilian review boards could ensure greater accountability, Batts was more direct, drawing on his experience in California, where both Long Beach and Oakland had civilian review boards. “I ask the question, is getting you what you want? Because even though we’ve had those civilian review boards in both those cities, I don’t think it accomplished . I look at the city of Los Angeles, they’ve had civilian review for 30 or 40 years. It hasn’t accomplished that there either. So I don’t know if having just a civilian review board . . . is getting our community to the endpoint that they’re looking for.”

ralejandro@afro.com