Batts on violence in 2014: 'Beat me up for the homicide rate, I get it, I got it'

You can pick a murder scene, any scene and the reaction is almost always the same. Someone heard the shots, another person can't understand why and yet another stands on their stoop as lines of yellow crime tape are shaded in with insecurity and fear.

The start of 2014 in Baltimore City is violent, but Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts wants to look beyond just one number.

"You have to put some context to what is happening, much like what I shared with you. This is not just random shootings that are taking place throughout the city and that everybody should run for their lives. It's concerning, but it is because we had some background incidents that took place over the first three days in the new year, and over another four, five days in the new year. We believe they are connected."

Commissioner Batts cannot share with us why his detectives think many of the homicides are connected, but he says there is some method to the madness of January.

It is a narrative the police department continues to build through its investigations but it cannot explain away the numbers or justify the loss of life in Baltimore… nor is it meant to.

Part of healing is outrage.

You saw that in Columbia last month when two young people were shot and killed before the gunman turned the weapon on himself.

Solidarity took the form of Governor Martin O'Malley and Howard County Executive Ken Ulman publicly declaring The Mall in Columbia back open for business two days later.

In Baltimore, and at the time of our interview, 22 lives were already lost.

Is there similar outrage over 22 people killed in the city in one month?

"I think that outrage is clear. I think it's clear with the residents. I think it's clear with the bosses here and in the most part it is clear with me. What you don't get to see is my meetings with my command staff. What you don't get to see is what my standard is within the organization. I have no tolerance for 22 lives lost in the city. It makes me angry."

The commissioner's standards on homicide are scientific, almost a sterile approach to crimes that illicit so much passion.

Murders are victims and lives, but when policing in a major metro, the commissioner also knows numbers are crime rates and headlines.

"If you are having 23 homicides [per month], that is going to put you in the high 200s. If you're around 20, that is going to put you in the 220-230 realm. Seventeen will put you in the low 200s. What we are focusing on and pushing for as an organization is closer to about 15 [per month]. Now that's a high standard. That is the standard that I want, and that is the standard that I push for as a whole."

But the rising homicide trend in the past two years and so far in 2014 continue to dominate the story line, taking away from a narrative the commissioner feels he cannot successfully  push in the media.

"You can beat us up, you can beat me up for the homicide rate. I get it, I got it. I am just as upset about it as anybody else, but there is a lot to be proud of in this organization. If you look at those numbers and see where we've come from, those are dramatic trends. We continue to go down. Crime continues to go down."

Batts is talking overall violent crime since 1985.

In those almost 30 years, that number has dropped 44 percent, robbery by more than 50 and aggravated assaults by more than 30 percent.

Property crime in Baltimore within that same timeframe dropped 40 percent.

It is also important to note that since 1985, Baltimore has also lost about 19 percent in population. Still, the commissioner says the police department is headed in the right direction, and they are winning the war.

But, with recent high profile murders like in Highlandtown, brutal aggravated assaults like in Canton and an armed robbery of Mother's in Federal Hill, he may still be losing the battle of perception.

"It's more glamorous to say, 'Run for your lives. The city is on fire.' But, the city continues to progress and go in the right direction, and it is getting safer. Now when we deal with that homicide rate, that is going to turn itself around too at the same time. There are reasons why the homicide rate spiked on us last year, and what my job is to correct those reasons and get them online."

One of those reasons, the commissioner is convinced, is gangs, even as his own department's murder numbers reflect the opposite.

In 2013, only 30 victims of the 235 murders were identified as gang members as were only 19 of those pulling the trigger.

According to the department's own numbers, far more violence was committed with handguns and by those with previous criminal records, or as the previous administration called, "bad guys with guns" --  a focus Batts' critics believe the city should return to.

[Is the problem not violent repeat offenders and handgun violations, or is it gangs?]

"I don't think there is a difference," the commissioner responded. "I think it's both. I think it's the same thing. A lot of our repeat violent offenders are gang members, and you have to get the definition of what a gang member is and how I use that in a very loose term just for us talking here one-on-one  -- any group that comes together for the purpose of doing criminality or committing crimes."

Batts is not only tasked with retraining a force that largely ignored the gang term for years, but redefining what it means and anticipating the reason for the violence before it ends up on the homicide rolls.

It's a process the commissioner knows will take time.

"It's just like when you're playing football. If you change your blocking scheme or you change what you bring to the playbook, it takes a skip for the organization to get that, to understand and work within it," Batts said.

Currently that skip is a murder spike, but Batts is firm that his plan will work for this department and this city saying, no matter how much pressure he takes, he will not move off that plan.

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