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Baltimore City Council takes on calls to ‘defund the police’ as part of Friday’s budget hearing

Baltimore City Council President Brandon Scott uses a megaphone June 3, 2020, ,to address a rally at War Memorial Plaza before protesters, led by a coalition of Baltimore youth movement groups, began a march downtown.
Baltimore City Council President Brandon Scott uses a megaphone June 3, 2020, ,to address a rally at War Memorial Plaza before protesters, led by a coalition of Baltimore youth movement groups, began a march downtown. (Amy Davis)

The Baltimore City Council wants to send a message to people rallying around the “defund the police” movement: Tens of millions of dollars in proposed cuts to the half-billion-dollar police budget to serve as down payment on a commitment to change the way tax dollars are invested in the future.

To those seeking radical reform, the cuts the council is preparing to make are a drop in the proverbial bucket for a massive agency that has been unable to police the city out of the violence many believe has less to do with guns, drugs and criminals than it does poverty, structural racism and trauma.

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City Council President Brandon Scott — who is poised to take office as Baltimore’s 52nd mayor in December — said the cuts are a start at rethinking the role of the police and what priorities the city should back with money. But Scott said he is treading carefully, as crime plagues too many Baltimore communities. And paying for training and technology necessary under a federal consent decree is not negotiable.

“We have to reimagine our dependence on policing and the belief it can be the end-all, be-all," Scott said. "We asked our police to do too much.”

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The council will vet the police department budget at 5:30 p.m. Friday during a 3½-hour virtual hearing. Residents can tune in online by following directions on the Council’s website.

The hearing wraps up roughly 50 hours the council spent this week evaluating the $3 billion operating budget drafted by Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The council is expected to vote Monday on the spending plan, along with any cuts to the police budget.

Young proposed giving the police department $550 million to spend next year. That proposal reflects a projected loss in revenue due to the pandemic, as well as belt-tightening by the agency — including a $5 million drop in previous overtime spending.

Lester Davis, a top Young aide, said that while the mayor understands the council’s desire to scrutinize the budget, the spending recommended reflects an evolving agency that is undergoing “real reform.”

Police Commissioner Michael Harrison put it more bluntly: “Defunding police now is defunding progress.”

Harrison said he is prepared to defend the budget Friday, saying it will serve an agency that is working toward more constitutional policing, bolstered by better training and technology upgrades. It includes the elimination of unfilled positions and reduction in funding for the mounted, marine and motorcycle units to the bare minimum, he said.

According to the commissioner, he has no control over at least $180 million of the department’s budget. That amount must go to pensions, workers’ compensation claims, health care costs, and equipment and maintenance for the police fleet and facilities. Some of the money comes from grants. The rest, he said, is almost entirely personnel costs and contractual spending for items, including body cameras.

“We gave the best possible cuts to the city in good faith," Harrison said. “The cuts will cut into services.”

Council members can negotiate with the Young administration to shift spending from one agency to another, but they only have the power to cut how much will be spent.

Scott, a Democrat, said he is working to build consensus on the Council for possible cuts, including knocking off millions of dollars the agency spends on overtime. Those costs have run roughly $40 million to $50 million a year.

Scott said conversations are also ongoing to shift any cuts to spending meant to enrich lives and neighborhoods: expanding the things kids can do at recreation centers, better responding to youth trauma, helping seniors stay in their homes and giving grants so more people can become homeowners in communities where banks historically refused to lend.

A broader conversation is also underway, Scott said. He set in motion this week a plan to create a task force to study ways to reduce the police department budget and make recommendations in November, just before the new mayor and new council are sworn in.

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To him, Scott said “defund the police” means systematically reassessing how the city invests its public dollars.

The conversation over reducing reliance on the police began in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray in 2015. But since the death on Memorial Day of George Floyd as a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck, “defund the police” has become a rallying cry for protesters nationwide.

“Defund the police” has taken on different meanings. Some people, like Scott, want resources pushed from police to pay for social workers to respond to mental health crises or for schools to set kids up for success. Others want the police structure to be wiped out and replaced with peace officers controlled by the community.

Councilman Kristerfer Burnett, who represents West Baltimore, said it is well past time for city leaders to rethink how to better direct resources and write better policies. But Baltimore still needs a functioning police department, he said, even if money is directed toward root causes instead of symptoms. Some people live in communities with too much violence and want more police patrols for their safety, he noted.

He wants more money spent on mentoring and programs to interrupt the violence, such as Safe Streets and Ceasefire.

“We have to address the whole person: housing, education, the impact trauma has on perpetuating violence and better economic opportunities,” said Burnett, a Democrat.

Councilman Ryan Dorsey, a Democrat who represents Northeast Baltimore, said the council does not have to look hard to find places to begin shifting spending from the police, such as eliminating the mounted unit. Dorsey said he sees the horses that officers ride for crowd control as an intimidation tactic that the police must abandon.

“When we look at places to cut money, the easiest most obvious places are the gross offenders,” Dorsey said.

Dorsey said he will also dig into the budget to see how many vacant positions the agency keeps on the books to give itself flexibility to pay for overtime and other expenses that bypass council scrutiny.

If the council and mayor can get the budget right, it will be a unifying moment for the city, said Councilman Zeke Cohen of Southeast Baltimore. He said he is eager to hear Harrison’s budget presentation and engage in a dialogue about writing a budget that serves all of the city’s needs better, including by making “smart, strategic and thoughtful cuts.”

“This is a call for us to end business as usual,” said Cohen, a Democrat. “This is about how do we create a city that is safe, healthy and thriving — and not increase the police budget every year.”

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