Op-Alt: If Kevin Davis wants a better future for Baltimore, he should rethink the police budget
By Ryan Dorsey
Mar 29, 2017 | 3:00 AM
There are some things in life you can always count on. Policing is not one of those things. When it comes to policing, the name of the game is to spend a lot and get little in return. Depending on where you live and how you look, what you get at all varies greatly.
I want to start with a bit of context though. I represent the 3rd City Council district in Northeast Baltimore. For the most part its geographic area can be described as four miles of Harford Road and all the neighborhoods along it from Erdman Avenue to the county line, as well as Morgan State University and all the neighborhoods immediately west of Morgan. It is entirely within the Northeastern Police District, the largest of all the police districts in the city.
I campaigned for City Council in what may seem an unconventional way. I told voters that we have it really good here, and if we want things to get any better, we need to see things improve everywhere else first. In the same way your quality of life is impacted by the neighbors next door, a neighborhood's quality of life is impacted by the health of the neighborhood next door. I was upfront in my belief that significant public policy changes have to take place in order to improve the well-being of our neighbors across the city. That belief is rooted in an understanding that racial segregation and racism are a root cause of many of our problems.
Across the district we are racially similar to the city: Over 70 percent of our residents are black, and there is a clear divide between the east and west sides of Morgan State. To the east we are about 55 percent black. To the west, neighborhoods that were originally developed by the Roland Park Company and sold with white-only racially restrictive covenants are almost 100 percent black. The Northwood area is also entirely rowhomes, creating a denser population, relative to the detached and semidetached houses throughout the rest of the district. But the racial segregation between east and west is where the district's differences tend to stop. The following statistics hold uniformly across the district:
o The city's median household income for black families is $34,000, and $61,000 for white families.
• The 3rd District is the only City Council district without a food desert.
• The district could lose half its grocery stores and likely not develop a food desert.
o This is in part because of high rates of car access. Whereas the citywide rate of vehicle non-access is 30 percent, ours is about 12 percent.
What does any of this have to do with policing or racism though? The 3rd District's homicide rate is the lowest in the city. That rate has nothing to do with policing, and everything to do with the statistics outlined above. Which is to say, it is about black neighborhoods having resources.
In 2015, while both the city and the Northeastern Police District experienced record numbers of homicides, the 3rd District's homicide rate remained flat. We held the lowest homicide rate of any council district, experiencing only five out of the city's 344 lives lost—not one more than the previous year, when it was also the lowest. When the city's homicide rate fell to 318 in 2016, the 3rd District's fell to three. Any violent death is a tragedy, but when tragedy is distributed so inequitably among a people, decency demands that we shed light on why.
Homicide and shooting victims, as well as suspects, are rarely district residents. As in the death of Lor Scoota, victims tend to be in the district incidentally.
No one can reasonably argue policing causes this low rate of violence. The Northeastern District serves 130,000 residents, which is three times as many as the Central, Western, and Eastern Districts, and roughly twice as many as the Southeastern, Southern, and Southwestern Districts. Moreover, these residents are spread over a larger geographic area than anywhere else in the city, and the police district has no notable officer or funding advantage over other districts.
Though the 3rd District has its struggles with property crime, the lack of violent crime relative to our comparatively modest police presence demonstrates that the district's high quality of life has more impact on public safety than a high police presence.
Yet still, we spend more and more every year on police, to the detriment of investments in education, housing, transportation, or small businesses that improve quality of life.
We must scale back our police spending, and invest the savings where it will make the greatest long-term impact, in addition to being our most immediate need: education.
Police Commissioner Kevin Davis can be the hero the city needs. Commissioner Davis can catalyze education spending that impacts every child in Baltimore for years to come. He can do so by leading the charge to reduce the police department's budget.
I do not believe our public safety or educational outcomes will truly improve until we correct the racial disparity in housing, employment, and transportation access across the city. Our crime rates correlate to poverty, lack of affordable housing in areas of opportunity, and transit deserts where it's easier for a county resident to drive through to Downtown than for a city resident to catch public transportation to work.
These quality of life barriers are the reason it is so incredibly expensive to educate our city's children: Affordable housing outside areas of opportunity tends to be unhealthy, exposing children to lead, mold, rodents, violence, and other environmental conditions that induce sickness and trauma. Our schools have to spend even more money to address those repercussions in the classroom. When other conditions like low wages are factored in, we can see how tragically easy it is for families to fall into homelessness. Even worse, Baltimore City itself pays employees who are non-city residents roughly 50 percent more than the employees who are city residents. Of course, housing insecurity only adds further cost to school transportation and school-provided social services. Now factor in food deserts throughout 13 of the city's 14 council districts, which leave children malnourished. A malnourished child's physical and mental state is in no way conducive to learning, and additional personnel assistance becomes necessary to work through these conditions.
Who are we as a city if we allow these conditions to persist, when we understand them now better than ever? Yes, the state often fails its obligation to help Baltimore counteract decades of disinvestment, but how long will we allow our own budget to underserve these glaring needs under the delusion that sufficient state funding for them is around the corner?
Year after year our schools remain underfunded, while we continually increase funding for a brutal and unjust police department whose actions bring millions of dollars in misconduct settlements. What has the department done with its surplus of funds? Wasted them on high-paid, high-ranking officers doing desk work that administrative assistants could handle at a fraction of the salary. Yet all the while it asks for more funding, citing a shortage of officers, as it grants tens of millions in overtime that could instead fund those positions. And where do they lay blame for these failures? On the collective bargaining agreement struck by their own union representatives; representatives who are salaried, benefits-earning members of the Baltimore Police Department with full-time leave from performing any duty to the department, unlike other labor unions, which must pay their representatives through members' dues.
Kevin Davis could be Baltimore's hero. He could stand up for our schools. He could tell the public that the Police Department does not exist in a vacuum devoid of these quality of life hurdles. He could tell Baltimore that its schools have had to suck it up and make do for far too long, and that this year BPD will step up to shoulder that same responsibility.
Kevin Davis should be saying that this year the police department will do better with less, as it supports proactive investments in quality of life as a preventative factor for crime. He can let the public know that help from the federal government is not coming any time soon, and that our governor has given no indication he will ever care about the city. He could acknowledge that it is unrealistic to think a charity drive can solve our funding shortages.
Kevin Davis should foresee that further underfunding schools will cause dropout rates to increase, and that teenagers will have a greater likelihood of suffering a police interaction if served by an under-sourced school. He should understand that such a path furthers the perception of Baltimore's police department that the nation sees in its consent decree, and that it would happen on his watch.
I want to believe in Kevin Davis. I want Kevin Davis to be the hero Baltimore needs. I want to believe he will make good on the promise his tenure as commissioner has begun with. I want to believe that by doing so, he will help Baltimore make good on its promise as a city.