Civic News
Budgets / Crime / Municipal government

In Baltimore budget hearings, consent decree meets ‘defund the police’

The City Council passed some $22 million in cuts to the police budget, but the hearings to get there offered a reminder that a four-year-old reform agreement is still a priority of the police department.

Protestors in D.C., June 2020. (Photo by Flickr user Yash Mori, used under a Creative Commons license)
It’s tempting to feel like Baltimore has been here before.

Five years ago, with the calls of “Black Lives Matter” and “No Justice, No Peace, No Racist Police” reverberating in the city after Freddie Gray’s death and the Baltimore Uprising, officials at City Hall responded by calling in the federal government. It resulted in a damning investigation of the Baltimore Police Department that found civil rights violations were a routine part of policing in the city’s mostly Black, economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. It not only put the words of the U.S. Department of Justice behind the experiences of police abuse that residents had lived with for years, but also led to an agreement with the feds called a consent decree that serves as a roadmap to reform the BPD which is overseen by an independent monitor.

Consent decrees were part of the Obama administration’s strategies to bring change to police departments in the wake of the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Tamir Rice in Cleveland and Laquan McDonald in Chicago. Along with Baltimore, each of those cities ended up inking reform plans. Some also lasted beyond the Obama years, as Baltimore’s ended up surviving over objections from the Trump administration.

With calls to confront how racism was rotting institutions, they sought to bring new practices and policies to policing via training and transparency. That came alongside a push to equip police officers with better technology, such as body cameras, which Baltimore adopted in 2016.

In 2020, there is once again pain following the deaths of Rayshard Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, Breonna Taylor in Louisville and George Floyd in Minneapolis. There are calls across the nation to confront systemic racism and recognize that the kind of changes in policing that would keep unarmed Black people from being killed needlessly by police did not take hold over the last four years. As The New York Times reported on Sunday, consent decrees have only been used in a small number of cities, and the Trump administration curtailed their use.

In this moment, Baltimore is once again looked to as a center of youth-led protest, though this time the movement is mainly making headlines for taking over I-83 and offering wisdom as 2015’s leaders are supporting a new generation.

It is part of a national movement, coalescing around another path to change, which activists are demanding.

In the push to defund the police and abolish police departments, the movement has re-centered the focus from police policies to restructuring the role of public safety in society altogether. Like so much about this moment, it feels different this time.

Rather than federal investigators and courts, it also puts the focus squarely on the people who hold the police pursestrings. This was on view at Baltimore City Council hearings, as last week’s annual budget hearings arrived as the city protests continued in the streets. On Friday, which was the day of the police hearing, protestors gathered outside City Hall and painted their message on the street.

Inside, as the hearing got underway, it was clear that the consent decree was still top of mind for the department. Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, who brought experience implementing mandated reforms when he left the top job in New Orleans’ police department to lead BPD last year, stressed the importance of maintaining funding that would allow for compliance with the consent decree.

He said areas such as the department’s staffing plan were part of that court-mandated agreement. In the area of technology, a new records management system will put police “light years ahead,” he said, and BPD CIO Woody Davis detailed additional systems for learning management and workforce management. Harrison also talked about how body cameras enabled the department to reduce expected cost of legal settlements with victims of abuse by $1.2 million. In all, he found $13 million in cuts to the budget through reducing overtime (a particularly costly area for the department), and defunding 37 vacant positions and even cutting $1.2 million in funds from planned legal settlements.

He sought to address the moment through those cuts, and said the call to examine the role of police in society lined up with the consent decree.

“That is what we believe our reform and community policing plan are all about,” he said.

But councilmembers had further cuts in mind. Throughout the hearing, they asked about where clinicians or other professionals could respond to emergency calls, or money could be redirected toward community building, public health and education. In other words, they were seeking potential areas to reallocate funding toward services that often operate with a fraction of the budget of police departments.

Police make up big proportions of city budgets, and Baltimore is often referenced in that group. A 2017 study by the Center for Popular Democracy found Baltimore had the highest per-capita spending of 14 police departments, and the Times noted that 13% of general fund expenditures went to police that year.

Infographic: Police Spending Per Capita In Major U.S. Cities | Statista

Infographic: Police Spending Per Capita In Major U.S. Cities. (Image courtesy of via a Creative Commons license)

Other city services — the kind that address root causes — receive a fraction of that. On Monday, 1st District Councilman Zeke Cohen read off a list of areas that youth wanted to see funded, including trauma and youth services, parks, rec centers, year-round youth jobs, affordable housing, schools, teachers, municipal broadband, violence interruptors and the city’s youth fund.

Maybe we have been here before. After all, protestors never shouted for the consent decree; rather, it was a response from the government to calls for change. On Friday, 7th District Councilman Leon Pinkett said that the line of questioning and energy around reallocating funds was not only a response to the protests happening now, but in tune with consistent calls in Baltimore.

“We may have missed the moment in the past but I don’t believe the residents of the city are expecting us to miss the moment today,” he said. “Change is of the order.”

With a movement continuing across the country, this moment of June 2020 could prove to be a critical moment that spurred dramatic change for policing going forward. Many have said it feels different. But in the FY21 budget for Baltimore, it appears the two paths to change — consent decree and cut — will coexist.

When it came time to propose the cuts and vote on the budget Monday, councilmembers identified $22.4 million in budget reductions for the police department. The council cut overtime funding in five areas, none of which are patrol. Included among these areas was a roughly $460,000 cut to the compliance bureau. And one cut to overtime for the public integrity bureau — a focus of reforms — did not move forward.

“These are the functions that are working to ensure that our consent decree is implemented, and I simply can’t support that because of how critically important that reform is,” said Budget and Appropriations Chairman Councilman Eric Costello, who was the lone vote against the cut to the compliance bureau.

Also defunded were two new community intelligence centers, the police mounted unit (aka police horses) and the police marine unit.

One measure was designed to build in more accountability, as $12.7 million worth of cuts came to “unallocated appropriations,” which are grant funds that the BPD will now have to get approval from the Council to receive.

The changes ultimately represented a 4% cut to the proposed $550 million police budget. Yet at a hearing that came at the same time as news that Minneapolis is taking steps to abolish its police department and New York is disbanding a plainclothes unit, proposals for deeper cuts did not pass, Baltimore’s City Council also considered eliminating an entire area.

Third District City Councilmember Ryan Dorsey proposed an amendment to defund the BPD’s drug enforcement section. He called the war on drugs “an absolute appalling failure that has decimated communities.”

“Now is an opportunity for us to simply stop participating, to stop being complicit in what this war on Black people has brought on for generations now,” he said.

But the vote on the amendment ultimately failed, 6-9.

As protestors bring pressure, advancing the defunding route of reform appears that it could require structural change in City Hall. In Baltimore, the City Council can make cuts to the budget, but can’t reallocate funding. So even as the Council voted 13-2 (with Pinkett and Dorsey voting no) for the budget with the aforementioned cuts, it came up to the limits of this power on Monday.

Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young indicated he will let the cuts stand during a Board of Estimates meeting Monday night. However, the Baltimore Sun reported he also said he will not use the mayoral power of reallocating funds to other agencies. Top aide Lester Davis told the Sun that Young stands by the budget that he proposed, which was designed to include funding for reform via the consent decree.

“You can’t reform a department while simultaneously cutting its budget,” Davis said.

Going forward, there may be another path emerging: The council is considering a charter amendment that would give it more power to reallocate funding. (The council is holding a work session on this and other charter amendments Wednesday.)

And a change is coming in the mayor’s office, as City Council President Brandon Scott won last week’s Democratic primary, topping a field that included Young. Scott called the police cuts “a ‌decisive‌ ‌first‌ ‌step‌ ‌towards‌ ‌responsibly reprioritizing‌ ‌Baltimore’s‌ ‌budget,” and referenced continuing work that was started in “the next term” — one in which he will presumably be mayor, given that the city is heavily Democratic. He spoke of the movement, but is also allowing that the change can happen over time.

“Many‌ ‌of‌ ‌the‌ ‌young‌ ‌people‌ ‌who‌ ‌have‌ ‌led‌ ‌non-violent‌ ‌demonstrations‌ ‌have‌ ‌also‌ demanded‌ ‌that‌ ‌we‌ ‌invest‌ ‌in‌ ‌their‌ ‌future,‌ ‌that‌ ‌we‌ ‌stop‌ ‌investing‌ ‌in‌ ‌their‌ ‌failures‌ ‌and‌ ‌instead‌ ‌invest‌ ‌in‌ ‌their‌ ‌promises,” he said in a statement. ‌”We‌ ‌must‌ ‌answer‌ ‌their‌ ‌call.”

Companies: Baltimore City Council / Baltimore Police Department

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