Eighteen months ago I suggested in these pages that the only way to fix the Baltimore Police Department might be to disband it and start over (“Disband the BPD and start over,” Aug. 31, 2016). At the time, it seemed like an outlandish idea. Now, after a series of revelations about corruption in the department, each seemingly worse than the last, many others have come to agree that disbanding the department could be a real possibility.
Del. Bilal Ali, a freshman lawmaker in Baltimore's 41st district, this week suggested the idea in a memo to Mayor Catherine Pugh (“Disband the Baltimore Police Department? After corruption trial, Maryland official proposes it,” Feb. 14). Delegate Ali cited the example of Camden, N.J., as a possible blueprint to follow in disbanding and re-constituting a new department, as I did in my opinion piece in 2016. There are of course many details to work out and difficulties that would be faced in pursuing such a change, but such a change is certainly achievable.
I've had the opportunity to engage many people in conversation about what such a change might look like, and the first question most people ask is, "how would we manage the transition?" Obviously that poses a challenge. But if we are committed to making change, as it seems we may be compelled to be, then there are obvious solutions.
First, let's recall that BPD is a state agency funded by the city. The mayor can choose the commissioner and set the budget; the City Council can adjust the budget. So the first thing we can do is create a new city agency dedicated to peacekeeping and social welfare. Morgan State University Professor Lawrence Brown has proposed that this be called the "Baltimore Peacebuilding Authority." This new agency could be overseen by the city and also by civilians, and would be paid for by funds previously allocated to BPD.
Much of the work that BPD currently does is social work unrelated to law enforcement. Those functions could be routed to the Peacebuilding Authority, leaving the police to law enforcement functions. Over time, we could either bring BPD under direct control of the Peacebuilding Authority, or if that seems unworkable, create a new police agency that could operate in parallel with BPD while BPD is wound down.
We also must rethink our relationship with Baltimore's police union, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3. While there is widespread support for municipal service unions, it's not clear that the FOP often behaves in citizens' best interests; it has, rather, been actively defending the "few bad apples" who may seem to have spoiled the entire bunch. The FOP may not have a future in a revised model, but maybe a new union dedicated to the goals of peacekeeping does.
So, the "how" is fairly clear: create one or more new city agencies while ramping down the budget for BPD. Clearly this will require auditing and oversight the likes of which Baltimore has not undertaken in decades. But if we expect to get the police department we deserve, we are compelled to put in the work as citizens and build the institutional capacity required. We don't have a choice.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller has dismissed the idea of disbanding as "nonsense," and Mayor Pugh said flatly, "I'm not disbanding the police department." And many readers will reject the notion out of hand. However, such dismissals usually indicate a reflexive resistance to change borne out of comfort with the status quo or fear of change; it's a fact the current state of affairs serves some people well.
But for those of us who believe a better and more just Baltimore is possible, let's check back in another 18 months and see where we are. Good ideas are like daffodils in the springtime — they just keep coming back.
David Troy is a resident of Bolton Hill and CEO of 410 Labs, a software company. He is a lead administrator of the Baltimore City Voters group on Facebook. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.