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Baltimore City Council scrutinizes police budget under pressure to radically change spending priorities

As protesters marched outside City Hall Friday, Council members scrutinized the police department’s half-billion dollar budget to find money that can be shifted to investments they believe will address the root causes of Baltimore’s crime.

Commissioner Michael Harrison defended a proposal to pump nearly 20% of Baltimore’s $3 billion operating budget into police activity. Harrison detailed the budget to the Council members, most of whom joined the hearing remotely.

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Even as the agency is hundreds of officers short of its goal, Harrison said he cut $13 million from the proposal before it went to the Council as a demonstration of the department’s fiscal responsibility. He reduced overtime, eliminated vacant positions and generated savings through reduced legal settlements.

“This department and this city face serious challenges,” Harrison said. “... We have a path forward, and if we continue on that course, we will only improve. But we must have the resources available."

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More cuts, he warned, will “have very serious consequences," such as longer response times and more unsolved crimes.

The committee is expected to reconvene Monday to discuss the budget. Members did not propose or vote on cuts Friday.

After the committee votes, the budget will go to the full Council for consideration. The spending plan must be in place before July 1.

As Harrison delivered his presentation, some 100 protesters gathered downtown — some demanding the Council “defund the police” while holding signs like, “Defund and Divest” and “End Police Violence Now” — two weeks after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

Floyd’s killing sparked rallies across the country and the rise of a “defund the police” movement. The call means different things to different people. Some want to see police budgets eliminated. Others want money reinvested where possible.

With a police helicopter hovering overhead, Organizing Black director Michaela Brown called the number of protesters “absolutely amazing.” Her group’s goal is to see police budgets reduced as a first step toward their abolition.

“The communities have the tools to keep us safe without the violence that police” inflict, Brown said.

City Council President Brandon Scott acknowledged the crowds outside, saying their actions amounted to the “largest call to action in generations.” Scott, a Democrat, won his party’s nomination for Baltimore mayor and moves on to the general election. In Baltimore, Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 10-to-1, so the primary typically determines who becomes the mayor.

Scott said he is committed to reducing the police department’s budget this year and in years going forward to make "reinvestments in communities we know have been underfunded for my entire lifetime.”

“Now is the time for us to systemically reassess how we invest our pubic dollars," Scott, 36, said. “Baltimore cannot move forward spending a disproportionate amount on policing.

"In fact, if per capita police spending was a sure way to make our city safer, then we would be one of the safest cities in America.”

Scott promised to put forward “tens of millions of dollars” in budget cuts to the police department, but he did not offer specifics Friday. He said the forthcoming proposal would recognize the realities of the city’s crime rate and its commitments under the consent decree.

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Harrison joined the hearing inside Council chambers along with three Council members, including Democrat Councilman Eric Costello, the budget chairman. In addition to the rally downtown, protesters gathered outside of Costello’s South Baltimore rowhouse early Friday to call on him directly to slash the police budget. He said the demonstration came on top of some 7,000 emails he received related to the police department budget.

Most of the Council’s 14 members, along with the police department’s top brass, joined the meeting virtually due to the social distancing required by the coronavirus pandemic.

The 5-and-a-half-hour hearing was the last of roughly 50 hours the Council spent taking testimony on the budget. Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young drafted the spending plan.

The Council can make cuts to the budget but cannot shift spending from one agency to another. That can only be done through negotiations with the Young administration.

It was unclear late Friday how the mayor will receive any forthcoming cuts by the Council. Young’s staff indicated earlier in the week the mayor was reluctant to decrease the police budget, given the strides the agency has made under Harrison.

The commissioner outlined the constraints he faces in reducing the $550 million budget more significantly. About $40 million comes from state and federal grants, not the city’s general funds.

Another $180 million is spent on health care costs, pensions, workers’ compensation claims and equipment and maintenance for the police fleet and facilities. Personnel costs and contractual spending account for nearly all of the balance, Harrison said.

Harrison said among the changes he has ushered into the department are new policies, including centralizing oversight of the more than 100 officers performing light duties. That helped result in nearly all of them returning to regular duty within a few months. Changes also helped the department to increase patrol numbers to the highest level since 2017.

A perennial problem with the police budget is the roughly $40 million to $50 million that is spent each year on overtime. Harrison said he is determined to do better and demonstrated that by decreasing overtime costs by about $5 million in the last year. He said he did that by limiting how much any single officer can work by week, mandating supervisory approvals and keeping divisions on strict overtime limits.

If the Council is looking to generate more revenue from the police that can then be reinvested in other places, Harrison recommended charging higher rates for officers to provide crowd control at sporting events. The commissioner also said he wants to relieve city police from some responsibilities at Baltimore-based detention centers and replace them with officers from another agency.

Councilman Leon F. Pinkett III, a West Baltimore Democrat, said the public’s call for change is not going unheard. He said city residents have been “crying for and demanding” changes for at least the last five years since Freddie Gray died of injuries suffered while in police custody.

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“We may have missed the moment in the past,” Pinkett said. “Change is of the order and reform is of the order.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Christina Tkacik contributed to this article.

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