Baltimoreans won’t see a repeat of last spring’s riots and looting on his watch, newly sworn-in Police Commissioner Kevin Davis vowed during a community meeting Tuesday night.
In one of his first public appearances on his first full day as Baltimore’s police commissioner, Kevin Davis told members of the Mount Vernon Belvedere Association that the police department today is better prepared to quell civil disturbances than it was last spring.
“April and May won’t happen again,” Davis said, referring to the riots and looting that followed the death of Freddie Gray after he sustained injuries while in police custody.
“We were ill-equipped,” Davis acknowledged to an audience of about 75.
“We didn’t have enough night sticks. We didn’t have enough tools to help us quell the riots. We have them now.”
Davis, 46, joined Baltimore’s police department last January as a deputy commissioner, after serving as Chief of Police in Anne Arundel County. He has been interim commissioner since July, when Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake fired former Commissioner Anthony Batts.
Davis was sworn-in as permanent police commissioner on Monday night after the City Council voted 12 to 2 to approve his appointment. Baltimore’s Board of Estimates this morning approved his $200,000-a-year salary.
Davis was scheduled to be the guest speaker at the Mount Vernon Belvedere Association’s monthly meeting long before the Council’s vote made Tuesday his first full day as Baltimore’s permanent police commissioner.
Drawing a Line in the Sand
For more than half an hour, in one of the ornate meeting rooms of the historic Belvedere condominium building, Davis discussed his approach to policing and answered questions about the department he now leads.
He said one of his top priorities is to lower the crime rate in the city. “Nothing else matters if crime isn’t put back into check,” he said. “That’s all the news talks about.”
He said police tactics need to change if the city is going to fight crime effectively. “There aren’t more bad guys this year than there were last year,” he said. “There aren’t more illegal weapons this year than last year. We just can’t do it the way we used to do it.”
Davis said another priority is keeping order in the city during the separate trials of six police officers who face criminal charges for the roles they played in arresting and transporting Freddie Gray.
Noting that the first trial is set to begin November 30 and the rest will continue until next spring, Davis said the city police department is ready.
“People ask me if I have drawn a line in the sand,” he said. “The answer is yes. You can’t harm people. You can’t harm neighborhoods. That’s the line in the sand. You can protest all day long. . . But that’s the line in the sand.”
Davis said he knows that his department is likely to get criticism no matter what it does. He noted that officers allowed protesters to occupy City Hall until the early morning hours a week ago, following a Council hearing on his appointment. They eventually made 16 arrests.
“We let protesters stay in City Hall until four o’clock in the morning,” he said. “We’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t.”
Increased Awards to Tipsters?
Davis revealed one new police strategy at the Mount Vernon meeting.
To help fight crime, he said, he wants to increase the amount of money offered for anonymous tips that lead to a a conviction under the Metro Crime Stoppers of Maryland program. He said he wants the maximum reward figure increased to $25,000 from $2,000 at present.
“In a perfect world, you shouldn’t need an incentive” to encourage people to report criminal activity, he said. “But we’re going to try. . . I have some more work to do, but I want to increase it,” adding that most jurisdictions “offer a lot more.”
In the question-and-answer session, Mount Vernon residents questioned Davis about subjects ranging from body cameras to police officers who spit on people to the use of helicopters for surveillance.
Low Rate of Homicide Arrests
Gino Cardinale, co-owner of City Cafe, asked why the department’s clearance rate in solving homicides is so low.
The rate currently hovers between 36-40%, which means that only two in five murderers are caught by the police.
Davis responded by arguing that the department was “on track to do better” because they are focusing on repeat offenders. “I think the processes are in place,” he said, calling on the public to help.
Jeff Ernsthausen asked why the police helicopter was circling around City Hall on Monday night during the City Council meeting at which Davis’s appointment was approved.
Davis said a helicopter can be a valuable information-gathering tool, and said he won’t hesitate to use it.
“We’re always going to err on the side of being in a position to capture what is going on on the ground. I can tell you from our experience with the riots, the civil unrest, all of the above, our aviation division was invaluable.”
Spitting Incident a Setback
Davis acknowledged that a recent incident in which a police officer spit on someone hurt the reputation of the department.
He said officers work hard to build up good will with the public and incidents such as that only negate the good work they do.
“That’s a big withdrawal from our good will checking account,” he said of the spitting incident.
Davis added that he believes officers generally behave better today than they used to, in part because more people are watching them and recording their actions.
“I will tell you one thing about police officers,” he said. “We have gotten better as a profession. We are so exposed now with 24/7 news. The behavior of a police officer in America is better today. But we have a long way to go.”
More Murderers to Justice
Reaction to Davis’s appearance was overwhelmingly positive. Councilman Eric T. Costello, whose district includes part of Mount Vernon, told the group before Davis spoke that he supported Davis’ appointment based on his actions as interim commissioner.
“Kevin Davis from the get-go has been responsive,” Costello said. “He’s been listening, and he follows up on the listening. That’s why I voted for him.” (The two councilmen who voted against the Davis appointment were Nick Mosby and Carl Stokes.)
Brian Levy, who is running for president of the association, said he was glad Davis met with the community on his first full day as commissioner and hopes he comes back frequently.
Levy said he and his friends were impressed that Davis is seeking to address problems caused by the zero tolerance policing practices of the past and wants to emphasize community policing, in part by bringing back the Officer Friendly program.
But City Cafe co-owner Cardinale had a different take on what should be the new commissioner’s top priority.
Davis has to find a way to bring more murderers to justice, Cardinale argued after the meeting.
“If you want to improve relations with the most at-risk communities, you have to solve these murders.”