Baltimore's state lawmakers likely to halt plan to put police under city control

A Baltimore lawmaker plans to withdraw a bill to put Baltimore police under city control.

Baltimore's state lawmakers are likely to abandon an effort to give the city control over its police force, which is technically a state agency.

Del. Curt Anderson, a Democrat who is chairman of the city's delegation in Annapolis, is sponsoring a bill that would make the switch. But after receiving legal advice Friday that indicated the city would be open to more lawsuits and more expensive payouts if the change is made, Anderson said he's likely to withdraw the bill.

The switch from state control to city control had the backing of the Baltimore City Council, which passed a resolution in support of Anderson's bill this week, but Mayor Catherine Pugh said she didn't need more control over the police department.

At Anderson's request, the Office of the Attorney General issued a letter Friday explaining that if the police department were to become a city agency, it would no longer benefit from the "sovereign immunity" given to state agencies. This protects the police department from liability in certain legal cases.

"Making BPD a City agency will result in the BPD having only local governmental immunity," wrote Sandra Benson Brantley, counsel to the General Assembly. "Unlike State sovereign immunity, which provides 'total protection' for State constitutional torts, local governmental immunity does not provide any immunity for State Constitutional torts."

As a result, Brantley wrote, "it is reasonable to conclude that the City would be exposed to significantly higher damage awards."

The bill, if passed, also might affect the consent decree that the city has negotiated with the Department of Justice over policing practices, Brantley wrote. She suggested the agreement might need to be renegotiated or amended.

Anderson had sponsored the bill because he said even minor changes to the Baltimore Police Department require legislation in the General Assembly, with stakeholders needing to travel to Annapolis for public hearings and votes.

"I thought that having the control of city police right there in Baltimore would be better," Anderson said.

State legislators have had to consider, for example, bills to adjust the definition of different ranks and changing the length of term for the city police commissioner.

"That could have been decided by the city council," Anderson said.

Baltimore is the only local police department that functions as a state agency. It has been a state agency since 1860, although the city is responsible for funding the department.

"Every other police department is controlled by their own jurisdiction," Anderson said.

Pugh said Wednesday that she didn't need more control over the police department than she already had.

"I have full control of the police department in the sense that I get to appoint the police commissioner," she said. "I get to sit and negotiate with the FOP as it relates to the kind of contract we will have. When there are things as it relates to the police department that are concerning to me, I will take my team to Annapolis to focus on them. That is not something I am interested in this particular stage of the game."

Councilman Brandon Scott, who urged state legislators to give the city, said Friday he was "extremely disappointed" that the bill failed.

"Today's event represents a lost opportunity for all Baltimoreans," Scott said in a statement. "Baltimore's citizens deserve the same level of local control afforded to residents of all other Maryland" jurisdictions.

"Allowing the functions of the police department to continue as they are today represents a clear example of a broken governance structure. The unchecked and unbalanced power within the oversight structure of the Baltimore is not representative of true American democracy and is dangerous to its core values.

"Protecting these values and the rights of our citizens should outweigh the fiscal concerns of the city."

As Chair of the Baltimore City Council's Public Safety Committee, I vow to work closely with Baltimore's legislators within the Maryland General Assembly to ensure that oversight of the Baltimore Police Department drastically improves. Moreover, I am extremely thankful to our house delegation for unanimously approving HB-1465 which would create a much needed Community Policing Steering Committee for Baltimore."

The bill was due for a public hearing in Annapolis on March 10.

Baltimore Sun reporters Yvonne Wenger and Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

pwood@baltsun.com

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