By JULIET LINDERMAN
BALTIMORE (AP) -- Baltimore's mayor fired the troubled city's police commissioner Wednesday, saying that a recent spike in homicides in the weeks after an unarmed black man died of injuries in police custody required a change in leadership.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake thanked Police Commissioner Anthony Batts for his service -- and praised the job he had done -- but said growing criticism of his performance had become a "distraction" that was preventing the city from moving ahead.
Deputy Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, who has only been with the department since January, will serve as interim commissioner, Rawlings-Blake said.
"We need a change," the mayor told a news conference, which was attended by Davis. "This was not an easy decision but it is one that is in the best interest of Baltimore. The people of Baltimore deserve better and we're going to get better."
The firing comes 2 1/2 months after the city broke out in riots following the death of Freddie Gray, who died in April of injuries he received in police custody. Six police officers have been criminally charged in Gray's death.
After the unrest, arrests in the city plummeted and homicides spiked. Baltimore's homicide total this year is 155, according to police. That's a 48 percent increase compared with the same time last year. Shootings have increased 86 percent. In one of the latest examples, gunmen jumped out of two vans and fired at a group of people a few blocks from an urban university campus Tuesday night, killing three people.
Police said Wednesday that the shooting wasn't random, but no arrests have been made.
"As we have seen in recent weeks, too many continue to die on our streets," Rawlings-Blake said. Referring to Batts, she said "recent events proved that his being here was a distraction."
"We cannot continue to debate the leadership of the department," the mayor said. "We cannot continue to have the level of violence we've seen in recent weeks in this city."
Batts and Rawlings-Blake are African-American, as is the city's top prosecutor, Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby. Davis is white. Sixty percent of the city's population is black, while the police department is 48 percent African-American.
Mosby said her office has already met with Davis and she looks forward to working with him.
The Rev. Alvin Gwynn Sr., president of the city's Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, said the firing was long overdue. Gwynn, who began calling for Batts' resignation within days of Gray's death, blamed the bloody spike in violence on the mayor's previous reluctance to fire the commissioner.
"We have people who died because they delayed," he said Wednesday.
Keonna Stokes, 22, a resident of the housing development in front of which Gray was arrested, said she was glad to see Batts removed from his position, and hopes a new commissioner will have a lower tolerance for police misconduct.
"The police wouldn't do the things they do if the commissioner didn't allow it," she said. "He should have been fired. We call the police when we really need them, when people hurt us. But now we don't call them, because they hurt us. If they didn't Freddie would still be here."
The U.S. Justice Department is conducting a civil rights review of the department, and on Tuesday, Batts announced that an outside organization will review the police response to the civil unrest that followed Gray's death. Most of the unrest took place on April 27, prompted by Gray's death on April 19.
The Baltimore police union released its own scathing post-mortem report Tuesday accusing Batts and other top brass of instructing officers not to engage with rioters and to allow looting and destruction to occur.
"The officers repeatedly expressed concern that the passive response of the Baltimore police commanders to the civil unrest allowed the disorder to grow into full-scale rioting," Gene Ryan, president of the Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, wrote in the report.
Following Batts' firing Wednesday, the union issued a statement reiterating the report's concerns but also said it would work with Davis to improve the situation.
Davis was previously chief of police in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, and assistant chief in Prince George's County, Maryland. The mayor said that in addition to reducing crime, Davis would "bring accountability to police, hold officers who act out of line accountable for their actions."
Rod J. Rosenstein, U.S. Attorney for Maryland, praised Davis, saying he helped reform the Prince George's County Police Department, "raising morale and professionalism while dramatically reducing crime."
In his own remarks to the news conference, Davis said his goals would include improving the relationship with the officers who work for him. "I will walk with them and serve with them and be with them every step of the way," he said.
But Davis also has indicated a willingness in the past to speak out against police abuses.
As Anne Arundel chief, he issued a news release disagreeing with a decision by the county Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 70 to donate $1,070 to a defense fund for Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. Wilson, who is white, fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, on Aug. 9.
Rawlings-Blake appointed Batts as police commissioner in September 2012.
His contract with the city paid him $190,000 and was to run through June 2020. It includes a provision for a severance payment equal to his annual salary if he is terminated without cause.
Hours after he was fired, Batts sent a short statement to the Baltimore Sun.
"I've been honored to serve the citizens and residents of Baltimore," he said. "I've been proud to be a police officer for this city."
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.