Baltimore police commissioner must lead city still reeling

AP News
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Posted: Oct 19, 2015 7:46 PM
Baltimore police commissioner must lead city still reeling

BALTIMORE (AP) — Now confirmed as the permanent police commissioner for Baltimore, Kevin Davis is tasked with ushering a city still reeling from protests, rioting and a record-breaking spike in violence through one of the most high-profile criminal cases in the city's history.

Six months since Freddie Gray's death, the City Council on Monday confirmed Davis as the city's permanent police commissioner at an evening meeting. The position comes with a five-year contract and a $200,000 annual salary. It also comes with a host of troubles.

Trials are slated to begin in November for six officers charged in the death of Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died a week after suffering a spinal injury in the back of a police van. Gray's death prompted near-daily and largely peaceful protests that drew thousands. But on the day of Gray's funeral, looters set trash cans on fire and smashed the windows of businesses, causing millions of dollars in damage and shaking the city's political and social foundation.

There was a ripple effect: It brought into focus systemic problems such as segregation, neglect and economic disparity that have plagued the city for generations, and forced elected officials to acknowledge the shortcomings of local government.

The council vote came five days after a committee voted in favor of hiring Davis. But just moments after that vote, a group of more than 30 demonstrators, including teenage activists, refused to move from the chamber's balcony. They demanded meetings with Davis and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake on their goals, including the adoption of a written agreement for how police treat protesters and the firing of the housing commissioner, whose agency was recently sued over allegations that maintenance workers were sexually abusing women in public housing complexes. After eight hours, 16 people were arrested, including three younger than 18. There were no injuries, and protests that followed the arrests were peaceful.

But the sit-in sent a strong message: Six months after Gray's death and the unrest that followed, Baltimore has not healed, and the police commissioner's challenges will be significant.

Members of the Baltimore Uprising coalition, including groups that participated in Wednesday's sit-in, shouted their opposition again Monday evening during the full Council vote. When President Bernard C. "Jack" Young asked which members opposed the appointment, several people in the audience yelled, "No!" The protesters then marched to the Inner Harbor.

Makayla Gilliam-Price, a high school senior who was arrested at last week's sit-in, said she and other activists met Sunday with Davis to discuss a list of demands that included guidelines for how police treat protesters. Gilliam-Price said Davis agreed "whole-heartedly and unflinchingly" to the conditions, and that Monday's gathering was supposed to celebrate that.

Davis said in a statement Monday that he had met with some of the protesters last weekend to discuss how police interact with protesters.

"We ultimately want the same thing: a safe and peaceful environment where citizens can exercise their constitutional rights," he said. "We've taken steps to ensure a better flow of communication, and I look forward to a constructive and productive relationship moving forward."

Gilliam-Price said the group was disappointed, adding Davis' statement stopped short of acknowledging what the protesters believed was a commitment to their plan. She said the group acted Monday evening to send a message that its members are "well aware of his neglect" and "will continue to put pressure on him while he's commissioner."

Davis took over the department in July after Rawlings-Blake fired Anthony Batts amid a severe homicide spike. Residents criticized the department, saying officers were abandoning posts in crime-addled neighborhoods out of fear they would face prosecution for making arrests. The rank-and-file also voiced its frustration with Batts' leadership; just hours before his firing, a Fraternal Order of Police lodge issued a scathing report on Batts' performance during the April 27 riot, blasting him for what it viewed as a failure to support officers and to adequately train them on handling civil unrest.

As interim commissioner, Davis vowed to take an aggressive approach to fighting crime and established the War Room — a collaborative task force that places detectives and federal agents side-by-side in a conference room to identify, arrest and prosecute violent offenders. Davis gave his personal cellphone number to protesters and engaged with them outside of a courthouse during hearings in the Gray case. Davis also inspired support from the police union.

"The men and women who were working for Commissioner Batts, there was a strain on his leadership toward the end," union President Gene Ryan told the City Council. "The morale and the attitude shifted immediately as soon as Davis took over," adding that Davis is a "cop's cop" and "the right person for the job."