Baltimore can't police itself out of its problems

In fiscal year 1990 — when I first came to work as staff to the City Council before being elected a member a decade ago — Baltimore spent $165 million on the police department and $37 million on the Recreation and Parks Department. This year, even though Recreation and Parks’ budget has been increased by our new mayor to $47 million, it is still dwarfed by the $494 million we will spend on the police department.

That means that over the last generation or so, we have increased what we spend trying to deter and catch criminals by 200 percent, but we’ve only increased what we invest in the programs most likely to keep our children from becoming criminals in the first place by 27 percent. Over almost three decades, that’s not even keeping up with inflation.

How can this be, given that many of us spend our days extolling the importance of our city’s youth and how they are our future? Sadly, when many of us go home at night, look out our windows, and see “our future” hanging out on our street corners, our actions belie our words. Character, as they say, is what we are in the dark.

When looking out our windows, almost no one calls City Hall, asking for more late-night recreation programs in the community or more money for Youth Works or after-school programs. Most simply call 911, which is how we get 1.2 million calls for service every year and how the Baltimore Police Department justifies a half-a-billion dollar budget — that’s almost 50 percent of what we raise in property taxes and almost 50 percent more than we spend locally on our public schools.

We're asking the police to do an impossible job. For decades now, we have largely abdicated our collective responsibility in the raising of the next generation. As a result, the unpalatable truth is that we already have more criminals than we will ever be able to effectively police.

We need to start investing more resources in strategies that reduce the desire to commit crimes. On the front end, giving kids more meaningful summer and after-school opportunities would reduce their likelihood of getting involved in criminal activity, but what do we do with the young adults in whom we already chose not to invest over the last generation?

Safe Streets is community-based program, run by the Health Department, which emphasizes a strong street outreach component; it delivers a unified message that violence is no longer acceptable through a combination of community organization and public education. Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion is a program recently brought here from Seattle, in which criminals whose crimes derive from their condition (addiction, homelessness, mental health issues) are connected by police officers with case management and needed services in lieu of arrest and prosecution. Both are at the pilot stage, in just a few neighborhoods, yet both are needed in far more communities across the city.

Many have also advocated for a program that would provide returning felons with housing and jobs — the lack of which has been shown to be the leading reason why so many return to lives of crime. As such, money spent on supportive services for those re-entering society would reduce recidivism far more than would additional patrol officers; eliminating motive is always a far more effective way to fight crime than marginally reducing opportunity.

Still, the biggest bang for the buck comes from more youth development, which would pay the largest dividends in the years to come. To paraphrase Frederick Douglass, not only is it easier to build strong children than to restore broken men, it’s more cost-effective.

To do this though, we've got to stop listening to the voices among us who say that all we have to do is spend more money on the Police Department and everything will be all right, because that’s not true. As Baltimoreans, we have all been complicit in the widescale disinvestment in human capital across huge swaths of this city; this has been going on for most of my lifetime, and we have to face the dismal fact that we are never going to police ourselves out of this situation.

It’s time for all of us to stand up and accept as a city that we need to change our priorities. Otherwise, we will continue to sacrifice members of “our future.”

Bill Henry represents North Baltimore's 4th District on the Baltimore City Council. His email is bill.henry@baltimorecity.gov.

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