BALTIMORE — Kevin Davis glided through the Eastern District here like a politician on a mission. He listened carefully as a grandmother suggested a curfew for kids, told teens to stay in school and shook hands with toddlers munching on Chinese takeout and Skittles.
Two days earlier, gunshots tore through this neighborhood of low-slung brick rowhouses, injuring three teenagers during one of the bloodiest Julys the city has seen in decades. Now, a day after announcing an arrest, the former Prince George’s County assistant chief was back thanking residents.
“The major looked right at me and said, ‘This one is going to close because the community is already helping us,’ ” Davis told neighbors. “As far as community relationships go in the Eastern and the Western, if we can do it right here, the rest of the city will follow.”
If the city’s new interim police commissioner seemed as though he were moving to conquer a campaign, it’s because he is — aiming to win over Baltimore and its crime-weary residents still ambivalent of the city’s police force.
Baltimore has long struggled with crime, and it’s often ranked as one of the nation’s deadliest cities, with simmering tensions between police and residents. The need to control violence and rally the community around law enforcement became more urgent after the fatal injury of Freddie Gray in police custody in April. Riots roiled impoverished neighborhoods, injuring more than 100 officers. Thousands of doses of looted prescription drugs flooded the streets. And the homicide rate spiked so quickly in the first six months of the year that police expect the city will soon eclipse last year’s total of 211. Add low officer morale, questions over how police handled April’s unrest and the fear that riots could reignite during the trial of six officers charged in Gray’s death, and it’s easy to see why Davis has logged 18-hour days since replacing former commissioner Anthony W. Batts in July.
“This is Ferguson on steroids,” Davis said.
From a competitive young officer to a decisive and sometimes-polarizing commander, the 46-year-old who climbed the ranks in Prince George’s must stem the bloodshed, marshal the community behind its police and restore the confidence of the rank and file.
“The whole world is watching Baltimore,” Davis said. “We’re trying to perform.”
And he must perform while managing what critics say is a leadership style that some view as direct but others see as abrasive.
“He’s not going to sugarcoat stuff,” one Prince George’s detective said. “A lot of people took offense to his leadership style because he expected work.”
Or, as another said, “You can love him and hate him all at the same time.”
Davis says he is prepared for this newest challenge because Prince George’s, where he grew up the son of a police officer, was not unlike Baltimore when it came to animosity between residents and police. Davis was a commander when the majority-black county underwent scrutiny from the Justice Department for civil rights complaints about 15 years ago, similar to the investigation underway in Baltimore.
“Back in those days, there was a lot of distrust for Prince George’s police,” recalled Mark Person, Davis’s former beat partner, about his early days on the force. But “he would get a lot of people to tell him information.”
With an English degree from Towson State (now Towson University), Davis became a cadet in 1992. He rose up the ranks quickly. With stints in narcotics and SWAT before making major by 36 and assistant chief by 42, he became known for his ambition and work ethic. Person recalled that Davis rarely missed a day of duty. Officers would spot the assistant chief backing them up on minor traffic stops. And when a flash-bang device exploded in his backpack during a training exercise, leaving him burned and blistered, Davis kept working.
Davis — who made a stop as Anne Arundel County’s police chief before becoming deputy commissioner in Baltimore — said his favorite job was commanding one of Prince George’s busiest, most populated and most diverse districts. In District 1 — which sits inside the Capital Beltway and covers the University of Maryland campus — Davis learned the value of community policing by working with nearly two dozen municipal police departments and city councils while tackling gang violence and race relations.
“He’ll get out there and he’ll walk the streets and talk to the people and it won’t matter who or what race or what station in life,” said LaVerne Williams, a Prince George’s resident of 30 years. “He would take notes and go back, and the next thing you know the problem was solved.”
Prince George’s Police Chief Mark A. Magaw, who tapped Davis to be assistant chief, said Davis immediately showed grace under pressure when the county saw 12 homicides in the first 11 days of 2011. Some panicked, but Davis stayed steady.
“He’s walked through the fire,” Magaw said. “He knows the struggle, and he embraces it.”
But Davis isn’t without detractors, who view him as a micromanager. As assistant chief, it was common for him to get out of bed and patrol around, even if it wasn’t a major incident. Officers report he would stop them for not wearing seat belts or for speeding. And he would confront officers in one-on-one counseling sessions.
“If there’s one thing people didn’t like about him, it’s that he’s real hands-on,” said Dean Jones, president of the Prince George’s Fraternal Order of Police.
Davis said he would stop officers after a number died in cruiser crashes. And though he said he’s evolved as a leader to see the big picture, he doesn’t “do well with lazy efforts.” Davis said his direct style comes from one of his first commanders, who upbraided him for giving a rookie zeros on an evaluation scaled 1 to 5.
“‘There’s no such thing as a zero!’” Davis remembered his captain screaming. “I appreciated that because I was being a smartass. Police officers are so used to being in charge that the one thing we don’t like is when someone tells us about ourselves. I’ve never hesitated to tell someone about themselves.”
Davis has also faced legal challenges.
“In 1993, a young man alleged that Davis threw him to the ground and handcuffed him without explanation,” the Baltimore Sun reported in July. “He won a $12,500 jury award against Davis, according to court records.”
And in 1999, Davis was among a group of narcotics officers accused of illegally detaining a 19-year-old. During the federal trial, Brian Romjue testified that officers picked him up and questioned him for five hours on the whereabouts of his 17-year-old girlfriend. It turns out the girlfriend was the niece of a Prince George’s deputy chief, who ordered Davis and others to follow and pick up the teen without a warrant. A jury awarded Romjue $90,000.
Davis said he was given the task under false pretenses and should have questioned why a deputy chief jumped command to assign narcotics officers a missing-
“It slowed me down for the first time in my career,” Davis said, “and made me more aware of the motives of leadership.”
Baltimore, still in the honeymoon phase, has welcomed Davis. He set up a “war room” to analyze crime in real time and asked federal agents to embed with homicide detectives. He also got more riot gear for officers, accelerating their training to prepare for possible future unrest.
“Having someone who has been through these issues before is an asset,” said Kevin Harris, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D).
Prince George’s homicide figures that used to average in the triple digits have dropped about 40 percent. And the county has worked to mend ties with the community after its Justice Department civil rights probe. Davis also had lessons in crowd control — though on a smaller scale — dealing with riots in College Park after U-Md. basketball games.
Baltimore City Council member Carl Stokes said he was surprised but pleased to see Davis walking through the Eastern District last month. “It is the right thing for him to do in the midst of so much conversation about the police and community not being engaged,” Stokes said.
Davis has solicited suggestions from the rank and file, who have made requests for better flashlights and more Tasers as well as the elimination of the rule requiring long sleeves that cover tattoos. Davis has delivered on several items, eliciting standing ovations at a recent FOP meeting.
“Everyone wants to give this guy a chance” said Victor Gearhart, a 33-year Baltimore officer. “The officers feel good working for him.”
Baltimore activist and pastor Jamal Bryant said church leaders in Prince George’s have called him to endorse Davis. And at a recent festival, officers stopped Bryant with a plea.
“ ‘Please don’t bother the new guy,’ ” Bryant recalled them saying. “ ‘Within two hours of him taking over, the morale of the police department has gone up.’ The police have never come to me endorsing anybody.”
Davis wants to transform the department into an institution that fights crime and closes cases while working with residents. That means urging officers to get out of their cars to talk with people and nonstop meetings with politicians, community leaders and the union.
“We can be that crime-fighting organization that's existed since 1784,” Davis said, “but we can also be that police department we’ve never been and meaningfully engage the community.”
After visiting at a dirt-bike accident near Freddie Gray’s neighborhood and chatting with residents in the Western District, Davis stopped in Federal Hill for a cigar and a Diet Pepsi before heading home. As he climbed out of a black SUV, several people stopped him.
“Aren’t you the chief of police or something?” a woman said. “Are you going to make this neighborhood better?”
“Anything that you can do to help what’s going on is greatly appreciated,” another said.
As with commissioners past, Baltimore has placed its hopes in Davis, and he wants to deliver.
“If we do this right as a city, it’s an example for the entire country,” Davis said. “Baltimore wants to win again.”