One Baltimore #37, Regaining Control

2/17/20

In last week’s column (https://one-baltimore.org/2020/02/11/one-baltimore-36-losing-control/), I delved into why the State of Maryland took over the Baltimore Police Department after a decade of elections marred by violence. It made sense at the time… but that time was a full hundred and sixty years ago, and the state never gave us back full authority over our own cops.

One of the interesting things about this state of affairs is that almost no one knows about it. Outside of criminal justice reform circles, most people to whom I speak are as shocked as I was to learn that our local police are in fact a state entity. After all, the Mayor is always hiring or firing the latest Police Commissioner and sometimes talks about tweaks to the police budget — how is it possible that the city isn’t actually in charge?

Turns out, after failed attempts in prior decades, the state legislature transferred authority to choose the Commissioner to us in 1976. That being the case, perhaps BPD’s designation as a state agency is a mere technicality, like one of those laws that says you can be jailed for spitting in the street. It might be on the books, but that doesn’t mean it has any impact on us today.

That’s not the case though… if anything, the veneer of local control only obscures the actual state of affairs. There’s a reason we go through Police Commissioners like toilet paper — ten in the last decade alone — and I think it comes down to a desperate attempt to exert SOME influence over a completely out-of-control agency. But deeper reforms are off the table. In fact, the Baltimore City Charter states that “…no ordinance of the City or act of any municipal officer shall conflict, impede, obstruct, hinder or interfere with the powers of the Police Commissioner.”

What does that mean? Well, as laid out in the 2018 report (https://www.baltimorepolice.org/sites/default/files/General%20Website%20PDFs/0909_COTF_Final_Web.pdf) of the Community Oversight Task Force (created as a requirement of the Department of Justice’s 2016 Consent Decree, initiated in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray with the goal of ending the many civil rights violations identified in their investigation of BPD), “While Baltimore City’s taxpayers are responsible for funding the BPD and paying for misconduct lawsuits filed against this agency, they exercise little influence over vital policies and operational issues. For example, parameters around the hiring and firing of officers, promotions, and civilian oversight are all set in state law.”

Made up of community organizers, professors, legal experts, faith leaders, lawyers, and mediators, the task force met for a year and researched deeply. Their report lists seven main recommendations, among which is local control. It states that “Every other police force in Maryland is governed and regulated by their local charters. The same should be true for Baltimore City. The BPD will never be fully accountable to its residents until full control of the department is returned to the city. Given the broken relationship that exists between the people of Baltimore and the police, the implementation of this recommendation needs to be a top priority.”

So, how have attempts to implement this priority fared? Well, earlier in 2018, State Delegate Curt Anderson had made an aborted bid for local control. He submitted a bill for it during that year’s state legislative session (which runs from January to April), but then withdrew it after a state lawyer opined that it could open the city to a higher degree of liability in cases of police misconduct, due to the loss of something called sovereign immunity, which shields state entities from certain claims.

The next year, there was another try for local control, this time initiated by State Delegate Talmadge Branch. The prospects for passage then seemed much stronger. In addition to the COTF’s call for action, advocates organized themselves around the cause.

The charge was led by the Campaign for Justice, Safety & Jobs (CJSJ). Made up of more than thirty local organizations, they issued powerful appeals to the public, such as an op-ed co-signed by the executive director of the ACLU of Maryland, the lead organizer for Baltimore CASA and the rabbi at Beth Am Synagogue and member of the leadership council of Jews United for Justice – Baltimore:
https://www.marylandmatters.org/2019/03/29/opinion-baltimore-needs-control-of-our-police-department. In it, the writers called local control a “crucial step toward justice and toward trust between Baltimore residents and the BPD” and pointed out that the bill had the support of the Mayor, City Council, City Solicitor, and the full House of Delegates.

And indeed, on March 18, 2019, the House of Delegates passed Branch’s bill unanimously, 137-0. I was particularly struck by that fact — no one else in the state had any interest in keeping Baltimore from controlling its own law enforcement. The House GOP leader even said at the time, “I can’t imagine why anybody would oppose fixing this” (https://www.baltimoresun.com/politics/bs-md-ci-police-control-20190124-story.html).

But there was still the State Senate to consider. Things started out looking good there too. State Senator Mary Washington spoke forcefully about the bill, pointing out that “If Hopkins can have and control their own private police force, why can’t the people of Baltimore City” (https://www.facebook.com/mary.washington.507/posts/2565011053540610). Maryland State Senator Jill P. Carter and Senator Shirley Nathan-Pulliam (now retired) also came out in support.

Unfortunately, there were also three city Senators opposed — Cory McCray, Antonio Hayes, and Bill Ferguson — and that was enough to kill it. As in the previous year, it came down to money. While City Solicitor Andre Davis said he didn’t think the city would in fact see any change in payouts, McCray said “I approach any change to the City’s funding and/or liability scheme with great caution” (https://www.baltimoresun.com/politics/bs-md-local-control-police-20190405-story.html).

I gotta take a second here and say what a foolish argument I think this is. Ok, so we might (or might not?) pay out more on misconduct cases. That would only be the case if a jury decided a defendant was owed said payout… meaning that, as things stand, we may be denying people the fair chance to receive compensation for their harms. That isn’t right. Moreover, if your goal is saving money on brutality payouts, blocking reforms that could actually STOP the brutality isn’t the way to do it.

On a hopeful note, though, McCray did say that he was “looking forward to a more robust conversation during the interim” (https://baltimorefishbowl.com/stories/advocates-city-senators-punt-to-2020-on-push-to-bring-bpd-under-city-control/). The implication was clear that local control wasn’t being denied, just delayed. CJSJ affirmed this narrative, stating that while they found the result “deeply disappointing,” they had “secured commitments from the Senators who withheld support for the bill to work with us to address their concerns. Baltimore residents can finally have hope that control of their police department will return to them during the 2020 General Assembly” (quotes from the same Fishbowl article linked above).

Well, now we’re in the midst of the 2020 General Assembly session, so… something should be happening right? If only. The promised conversations, it seemed, never materialized. I connected with several of the groups from CJSJ, but they chose to focus this time around on bills with a better chance of passage, things like changing the Maryland Public Information Act to allow access to records of officer misconduct (http://mgaleg.maryland.gov/mgawebsite/Legislation/Details/sb1029) and enacting stronger community oversight of BPD (http://mgaleg.maryland.gov/mgawebsite/Legislation/Details/sb0972), the overarching aim of the COTF report. I can in no way fault those priorities, and I encourage everyone to show up for these and the other important bills being supported by these groups this year.

But I found that I couldn’t let local control go. I’d developed a passion about this blatantly unfair manifestation of our powerlessness… a powerlessness that I was even more infuriated to learn was self-imposed, solely the choice now of our own leaders. I took everyone’s words seriously, that local control was crucial and necessary, that there was no time to wait.

So I kept trying to work on it. I figured, hey, whether it passes or not, continuing to advocate for local control can help spread awareness about the issue, can make the Senators who said we needed more time to study the issue answer for the fact that they’d made no attempts to do so. Hold them to account, keep the pressure on.

But in order to advocate for passage of a local control bill, there’d have to BE one. So, I sat down with Delegate Branch to gauge his plans and hit another roadblock. He was unwilling to introduce the bill again unless the Senate introduced it first, since they had defeated it last time. I met with a staffer for Senator Washington, in the hopes that she would introduce — but I was told that, while she was still supportive, she was just too busy this year to take the lead. Next I emailed Delegate Boyce, hoping she would introduce the bill in Branch’s stead, but she deferred to his judgment.

Finally — FINALLY — I found one person in the General Assembly who said she’d move the bill forward, Senator Carter. She committed to pursuing it on the phone with me, but I waited to make an announcement, wary that it might not come true. We met in person at the beginning of this month and I asked her about it again then.

It was an interesting conversation. She thought that the bill didn’t have much of a chance, since none of the Senators who were opposed had changed their stances (and of course one of them, Bill Ferguson, is now the Senate President). She acknowledged that, even for her, it was tough to think about letting go of the power to make changes to BPD. No one wants to give up control. But she said she would do it. I asked her a couple of times, phrasing it in different ways, like, “So, it’s ok for me to say publicly that you’re going to introduce this bill? Because I’m going to work on it publicly if you’re definitely going to do it.” And again, she said yes.

So, with the backing of Baltimore For Border Justice, and in partnership with the awesome local org Circles of Voices, we’re going to have a meeting on it. We’re getting together this Friday, 2/21 from 6-8pm at Impact Hub Baltimore (https://www.facebook.com/events/2581638691934113), and we’ll also be looking at a bill to end for-profit immigrant detention in Maryland. Please join us!!

I don’t know whether or not we do have any chance, but this whole story above, this whole long process of trying to find a sponsor, the fact that the bill might be doomed simply because of timing — while the session isn’t yet half over, and it’s still totally possible to get a bill passed if it’s introduced soon, we’re already well past the point where it’s ideal to have it filed — the fact that huge competing state-wide issues like Kirwan (another thing we should all be getting out there to support, https://one-baltimore.org/2019/11/26/one-baltimore-25-kirwan/) are sucking the air out of the room, the fact that our state rep’s can claim they’re going to work on something and then just completely ignore it… all of that is EXACTLY why we need local control.

I’m not saying that the City Council is perfect, but they sure as hell are more accessible. There are fourteen of them instead of just six. They meet twelve months of the year instead of just three. They hold hearings downtown, rather than over an hour away in Annapolis. They consider far, far fewer bills at a time than the General Assembly does. They sometimes even hold hearings at times that are accessible to the working public, rather than at 1pm (and if you go to a hearing in Annapolis at 1pm, trust that you’re going to be there for many hours).

Which process is easier for us to have a say in? Which is more likely to invite participation from everyday Baltimore residents? Which is more likely to give us more control over how we’re policed, to potentially lead to major reforms, maybe even a complete redo of the force from the ground up (which I think is what’s needed), rather than leaving the department the unaccountable, graft-filled, murderous, systemically corrupt, and ineffective horrorshow that it’s been for so long now?

Case in point, the shooting and subsequent mistreatment and framing of Keith Davis Jr. (https://one-baltimore.org/2019/06/17/one-baltimore-7-keith-davis-jr/). His next hearing is a week from Friday, 2/28 (https://www.facebook.com/events/602379147260136/), and if you care about justice and can possibly get there, be there.

#OneBaltimore

#LocalPoliceControl

#LocalControl4Baltimore

#DisbandBPD

Cultural Event of the Week: Oh maaannnn, this looks like a hell of a show!! This Saturday, 2/22 at Ottobar, it’s Santa Librada – Baltimore, F City, Gingerwitch, and The Selkies! Sorry to play favorites, but the first two are probably my favorite local bands in the whole damn citayyyy aaaaa!

https://www.facebook.com/events/611397313022669/

Green Event of the Week: Y’know that iconic smokestack that you see when you’re coming into town from 95, the one that says BALTIMORE on it? It belongs to a trash incinerator, and it’s currently where most of our waste goes. But new clean air standards mean that it’ll likely have to shut down soon, and what we’ll do then? The city’s plan is to truck our waste out of town, an expensive proposition. Another option, which would also create lots of local jobs, would be to ramp up recycling, composting, and reuse of materials. I expect those are the sorts of things we’ll hear about on Saturday, 2/22 at the unveiling of Baltimore’s Fair Development Plan for Zero Waste, developed by United Workers, south Baltimore communities, and national experts.

https://www.facebook.com/events/204315524073875/

Baltimore’s state legislative districts, with those of Ferguson, Hayes, and McCray, the three local police control opponents, circled in red with their contact info. Please reach out and let them know how you feel about this issue!! It can make a bigger impact than you’d think. If the print’s too small to read, you can find em all here: https://msa.maryland.gov/msa/mdmanual/05sen/html/sendist.html

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