Disband the Baltimore Police Department? After corruption trial, Maryland official proposes it

After this week’s conclusion of a federal corruption trial that convicted two Baltimore police officers, a Maryland lawmaker floated a radical proposal: Disband the Baltimore Police Department.

Del. Bilal Ali, a Baltimore Democrat, proposed the idea in a memo to Mayor Catherine E. Pugh and her newly appointed police commissioner after a federal jury convicted two Baltimore detectives for their roles in one of the city’s biggest police corruption scandals. Six other officers pleaded guilty in the case.

The idea quickly generated reaction among politicians Tuesday — from one calling it “nonsense” to others saying Ali should not be dismissed. Pugh said the idea was going nowhere.

“I’m not disbanding the police department,” she said at her Wednesday news conference.

To support his argument, Ali cited the example of Camden, N.J., which disbanded its troubled police force in 2013 and rebuilt the agency in ways that some say have led to a reduction in violent crime. Others criticize the move as a union-busting tactic to save money.

“I write today to ask that Baltimore City’s leadership seriously evaluate Camden’s approach, and begin consideration on whether to disband and reconstitute BPD from the ground up,” Ali wrote. “There is a blueprint for success, empirical data to guide us, and a light at the end of the tunnel. Our only choice now is whether we will begin to walk toward it.”

Ali asked Pugh and acting Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa to seriously consider rebuilding the 165-year-old department, whose $497 million budget accounts for nearly a fifth of the city’s $2.8 billion operating budget.

“I am well aware of the enormity of this action, and that its scale may give you reason to pause,” Ali wrote. But he encouraged them to “engage” the public about the idea.

It is unlikely that the delegate’s letter will lead to the dissolution of a department that has faced three dismal years since the 2015 riots spurred by Freddie Gray’s death from injuries suffered in police custody. Last year alone, the U.S. Department of Justice and the agency entered into a consent decree to reform discriminatory and unconstitutional policing; 342 people were killed, a per-capita record; and federal prosecutors began revealing details of a criminal enterprise masterminded by the elite Gun Trace Task Force.

Ali, 66, is an Annapolis newcomer. He’s a freshman delegate who was appointed to his 41st District seat by the Democratic State Central Committee to replace Del. Nathaniel T. Oaks when Oaks was elevated to the Senate. Ali also does not sit on the committee that oversees criminal justice issues.

Some lawmakers quickly dismissed Ali’s proposal.

“That’s nonsense,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. “You can’t throw out the good with the bad.”

Other city lawmakers — including Oaks, Sen. Joan Carter Conway and Del. Cheryl D. Glenn — said they support De Sousa’s and Pugh’s efforts to enforce reforms.

“I completely support the new commissioner and I’m excited we finally have someone who grew up through the ranks,” said Glenn, who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus.

Conway questioned Ali’s understanding of the police department, which is a state agency whose commissioner is hired by the mayor. Nearly all of the department’s budget is funded by the city. Conway said she opposes Ali’s idea but is willing to discuss solutions.

“I think Delegate Ali may have some issues like most of us do, but that is definitely not the answer,” she said. “I don’t think he fully understands what he’s saying but I will definitely talk to Del. Ali.”

Other city lawmakers were not as dismissive.

Lester Davis, spokesman for City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, said the concept is worth discussing given the recent corruption exposed.

“It’s something people will need to consider carefully,” Davis said. “Given what has come out of the trial, it’s not something that can be easily dismissed.”

“I don’t think anything is off the table,” said Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat.

“We have to be thoughtful and practical in our approach because community safety is the single most important function of government,” Ferguson said. “There’s no way we can go back to business as usual.”

Ali’s idea is based on Camden, N.J., the once crime-plagued city of 75,000 across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. In 2012, the city’s 67 homicides put it fifth in the nation in per-capita killings.

The following year, facing a budget crisis and pressure from New Jersey officials, the city disbanded its police force and rebuilt it with a new name: the Camden County Police Department. The new entity offered lower pay but was able to pick city officers it wanted to retain. The department also transformed its crime-fighting strategy to focus on “community policing.”

Lou Cappelli, the Camden County elected official who led the effort to rebuild the department, said the 400-officer force has focused on putting more officers on the streets and has required them to go door to door to introduce themselves, walk beats and ride bicycles. In 2015, then-President Barack Obama called the shift a national model.

“Residents used to be afraid of the police, they didn’t trust the police,” Cappelli told The Baltimore Sun. “That has changed dramatically.”

Homicides declined by 60 percent from 2013 through last year. And violent crime declined by a quarter.

Their experience since then has been terrific,” said Gary Cordner, a criminal justice professor at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania.

But Cordner said he’s not aware of any cities that have followed Camden’s lead. He noted that Camden also was on the brink of financial collapse and was under pressure from the state to take action.

“It seems to me it was a relatively unique situation,” Cordner said. “The stars must have aligned.”

Camden is also much smaller than Baltimore and part of its surrounding county’s governance structure, he said.

Cordner said disbanding Camden’s force was also seen as a form of “union-busting” — something police labor groups in Maryland would likely oppose.

Eugene O’Donnell, a professor at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said there is little proof that disbanding Camden’s department helped reduce crime. The move was a way to eliminate a dysfunctional agency, shifting to a cheaper model by firing officers and rehiring them at lower pay, he said.

Maria Haberfeld, another John Jay professor, said the best way forward for Baltimore “is about creating new standards and adhering to them.”

“You have to follow up and make sure you hire the right people, supervise them correctly and discipline them properly,” Haberfeld said.

Pugh said the consent decree mandates reforms that she is confident will change the police department’s culture and practices. The jobs of the decree’s federal monitor and community oversight panel are to assure those reforms are “fully implemented in a way that ultimately renews the trust and confidence of our citizens,” a Pugh spokesman said in an email.

Ali did not back down from his idea.

“We have to put all the options on the table,” Ali said. “I don’t buy into that ‘just a few bad apples’ theory.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Scott Dance and Doug Donovan contributed to this article.

mdresser@baltsun.com

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