Takeaways from Baltimore Police budget hearing: Commissioner won’t leave for D.C., vacancies continue, low-level offenses in spotlight

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Baltimore Police’s top cop began Tuesday night’s hourslong budget hearing by combating one rumor: He will not be leaving for the police chief gig in nearby Washington, D.C.

Commissioner Michael Harrison told Baltimore City Council members he’s fielded calls from across the country to gauge his interest in open jobs. He’s said no to all, he said.


Whether he will be sticking around through the end of his contract in March, however, was less clear. Harrison has a five-year deal that expires in early 2024 and serves at the pleasure of Mayor Brandon Scott, a first-term Democrat who could be up for reelection that November.

“That’s a conversation that the mayor and I have to have,” Harrison said.


The commissioner later declined to directly answer whether he’d want to stay, regardless of the mayor’s wishes: “There may be a consideration that I may have to consider. If and when it comes, I may have to make that consideration,” Harrison said.

Council members posed wide-ranging questions to Baltimore Police top brass over a more than five-hour hearing — from the crime lab to the city’s consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice to the city’s so-called “microzones” to its staffing plans. Questioning was at times pointed, but largely lacked the fireworks of other more contentious discussions this budget season.

The mayor’s proposed budget calls for a $594 million allocation for the police force, an uptick from this fiscal year’s total $579 million. The rise largely stems from increased state and federal funding, with city general fund dollars remaining relatively flat at about $525 million in both fiscal years. Scott, who campaigned on a pledge to reform funding for city police, has in previous years suggested boosting city spending on the department.

Scott’s $4.4 billion budget plan still requires council approval. For the first time in more than a century, council members have the ability to cut and add to the budget, a new dynamic in a process that typically favors the city’s mayor.

Amendments are due by Wednesday at noon and a final budget must be approved by June 26.

Last year, amid a summer spike in violent crime, the council demanded a short-term crime plan from the administration ahead of budget hearings. Ultimately, the group made no cuts to police spending, and instead targeted cuts at the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, as well as the sheriff’s office.

This year, the city is seeing slightly lower homicide and nonfatal shooting rates compared with the same time period in 2022. Data for the week ending May 27 showed 2023 homicides were down by 15% and nonfatal shootings down by 9%.

Here’s what to know from Tuesday’s budget hearing:


Low-level offenses in the spotlight

Baltimore State’s Attorney Ivan Bates announced last week that his office would resume prosecuting low-level offenses, such as loitering, drinking in public and drug possession, through a new citation court docket.

Baltimore Police will begin to issue criminal citations for the “quality of life” offenses beginning Monday. Police officials said at Tuesday’s hearing that officers would be given specific guidance later this week or early next on how to handle offenses, including which could receive a warning first and what might prompt an arrest.

Council President Nick Mosby, the husband of Bates’ predecessor, Marilyn Mosby, asked Harrison whether the low-level citations might exacerbate violent crime by taking up officer time. The commissioner said he didn’t expect it to, as supervisors would still have discretion to redirect officers to more pressing issues.

Mosby also stressed the importance of “ensuring there is no ambiguity” on what to expect.

“So much has been done over the past couple of years to start to rebuild trust in our communities,” he said. “We just don’t want a policy where folks are on different pages to kind of upset that.”

Later in the hearing, in response to council member questions, the department said it planned to assess and monitor the implementation of the criminal citations.


Council members press on success of group violence strategy

The Group Violence Reduction Strategy, a focused deterrence model of violent crime reduction piloted last year, has been touted by the Scott administration as a success as it has continued to expand to a new police district this year.

Some council members had questions.

Councilman Eric Costello, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee holding the hearing, repeatedly pressed officials about the number of police personnel assigned to assist in the strategy and current crime statistics in the Western and Southwestern districts where GVRS is underway.

Councilman Mark Conway, too, questioned whether the strategy was drawing resources from other parts of the city, in a way that could hinder crime-fighting efforts elsewhere.

Costello represents the Central Business District and nearby neighborhoods stretching west, including Camden Yards, City Hall, the Inner Harbor and Federal Hill. Conway’s North Baltimore district stretches to the Baltimore County line and includes Homeland and communities surrounding York Road.

The Western District, according to data as of May 27, had seen 10% fewer nonfatal shootings — 26 this year, compared with 29 the year prior — but three more homicides, leading to a 21% increase year over year. In the same time period, the Southwestern District saw 33% reductions in homicides and 19% reductions in nonfatal shootings, police data showed.


Harrison threw his support behind the strategy again Tuesday, saying he’s seen it work in New Orleans and that it’s how “all the cities that have sustainable murder reductions have done it.”

“It brings the full weight of local, state and federal law enforcement for enforcement for those who do not want to change their life,” he said. “But it also does the other thing ... it works and seeks and aims to change the life and life conditions of the individual, so they don’t choose crime in the first place. Both have to happen for reduction.”

At a Monday budget hearing for the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, Director Shantay Jackson said police capacity was taken into consideration when planning the strategy’s expansion. The agency hopes to have it citywide by the end of 2024. She also referenced a third-party study that found no evidence of the 2022 Western District pilot displacing crime to other parts of Baltimore.

Officer vacancies continue to plague agency

As is now common, discussion also focused on police staffing shortages.

Eric Melancon, the department’s deputy commissioner for compliance, said Tuesday that there are 338 patrol vacancies, out of 522 total vacant budgeted and funded positions. The staffing plan, Melancon said, calls for 918 patrol positions, but there are roughly 650 currently filled.

To help address staffing shortages, the department last year announced plans to hire civilian investigators. Officials said the agency is now just short of a goal of having 20% civilian staffing on the force. This year’s budget proposal also includes 40 new state-funded civilian positions for operational and training support for the department’s Administrative Bureau.


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The agency’s telephone and online reporting units, also meant to help address staffing concerns, can take nonserious police reports that don’t require a sworn officer’s response. Melancon said the telephone unit took 50,795 calls in 2022 and has so far fielded 31,929, a 77% increase from the same time period last year. Still, he and Harrison said the agency would like to see more.

Consent decree exit and costs probed

Six years into the city’s consent decree to address unconstitutional policing, at least one council member is wondering when it might end.

Councilman Zeke Cohen expressed concern about whether residents are seeing improvements in policing and community relationships, harking back to comments made by a Justice Department attorney earlier this year suggesting the department’s progress was less apparent on the street than “we’d like to see.”

Harrison, in response, said he believes Baltimore is “as close as any city can be.” With improved technology that will allow for “meaningful” assessments and the early intervention system currently out for bids, he said he expects the Department of Justice to give the agency “positive marks.” He said the city might exit in a “couple of years, perhaps.”

The city pays roughly $1.5 million annually for the consent decree monitoring team, but the total costs of reforms are harder to tally, officials said in response to other questions. There have been “millions in investments” across technology investments, personnel, capital costs and staffing requirements.

It has also likely resulted in cost savings, the agency said, pointing to what they said was lower litigation costs, as evidenced by fewer complaints of excessive force and more constitutional stops, searches and arrests.


Baltimore Sun reporter Emily Opilo contributed to this article.