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Advocates gear up for debate over Baltimore police budget proposal, seek to press mayor who oversaw cuts to spending last year

Police reform advocates and community organizers are scrutinizing the city budget proposed this week and preparing to oppose a plan to increase Baltimore’s spending on police, saying they want to hold Mayor Brandon Scott to his expressed support for reallocating money away from law enforcement.

Under Scott’s proposed budget, police spending would climb from $527 million in the current fiscal year to $555 million for the year that begins July 1. That’s a nearly $28 million increase — and $6 million more than the council cut last year from the budget for police when Scott was at its helm as council president.

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Scott maintains he has limited flexibility this year to reduce the department’s costs, given pension, health care and retirement commitments, as well as federally mandated spending on police and other “continuity of service” requirements.

That explanation has done little to appease critics, who say they’ll testify against the spending Thursday at the council’s Taxpayers’ Night, ahead of council members hearing testimony next month with police department leaders for their portion of the city’s budget hearings.

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“We do appreciate his alignment and values, but his actions have to back it up,” said Rob Ferrell, senior organizer with Organizing Black, one of several groups focused on reform. “The budget is a moral document, and what it says is ... ‘We’re not investing in the overall health and wellness of our communities.’”

The mayor’s office declined to comment.

Council members and other elected officials, too, are examining the budget details made available Monday.

“What I have been saying for years is that Baltimore City’s budget priorities are out of whack,” Democratic City Comptroller Bill Henry said. “We should spend the government’s money to keep people from committing a crime in the first place.”

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Henry said he had not had a chance to determine how much should be cut from where. But he said the city has a “moral and financial” obligation to shift toward funding crime prevention mechanisms, such as housing and jobs.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison defended the plan’s increases as “fixed costs,” not operational cost increases.

“This is a budget that allows me to deploy our resources across the city, based on the manpower we have and the demands of our city and the needs of our community,” Harrison said. “It does require me to be fiscally responsible and make smart management decisions on how, when and where to deploy.”

The budget funds about 3,200 police positions. The number of police personnel would not change significantly from 2021, according to the budget plan. The department has set a hiring goal of 240, the same as fiscal year 2021.

Salaries account for the largest share of the department’s budget, followed by “other personnel costs,” and then contractual services.

Some divisions would see staff transfers and reductions, including the crime laboratory and evidence control unit, the criminal investigation division and the administrative bureau.

The budget calls for investment in a digital records program, funding for the training academy, radio maintenance spending, and increase funding for police patrol, special operations, recruitment and “data-driven strategies.”

Parts of the projected budget stem from grants that were awarded in previous years, such as $750,000 in 2020 from the state to be dispersed over three years, and funds for new hires. There’s also federal grant money, including $1.4 million for new technology for the pursuit of “targeted suspects.”

Some constituents said they want something different from Scott’s first budget as mayor.

Ray Kelly, a community organizer and director of the Citizens Policing Project, an advocacy and educational group dedicated to helping leaders and communities understand police reform, said the budget plan reflects a step in “the wrong direction.”

“There is an expectation from our mayor, who ran in accordance and under the ‘defund’ umbrella, to continue what was initiated last year,” said Kelly, who also served as chair of a community task force designed to review a federal consent decree that seeks to fix problems at the police department.

“There wasn’t the expectation that it would be $100 million less, but there was no expectation that it would increase after 2020, and the year we had.”

Kelly said he was struck by what he sees as the budget’s lack of investment in mental health services and programs, as well as other environmental factors proven to reduce crime, such as education.

“We’re just trying to bail ourselves out once again with law enforcement, under the auspices of a consent decree mandate,” he said.

Democratic Council President Nick J. Mosby said in a statement that he would evaluate the mayor’s plan and “use data to drive the conversation and suggest areas where he can reinvest in our communities.”

Democratic Councilman Mark Conway, who chairs the public safety committee, said he could not yet say whether there was room in the budget for cuts to policing.

“We don’t want to cut for cutting’s sake,” Conway said. “If we are cutting services, where does that money, hopefully, go that fulfills the need of that service? It’s a complicated conversation.”

And Councilman Eric T. Costello, chair of the ways and means committee, said further reductions to the police department budget would produce a “skeleton” agency.

“My question is, what do you cut?” asked Costello, a Democrat. “Conversation about cutting the police department, without talking about what you’re going to cut, is irresponsible.”

Costello opposed last year’s cutbacks, saying those trims went too far. This year, he said Scott’s plan reflects economic uncertainty and strains caused by the coronavirus pandemic, as well as an understanding of the constraints imposed by the consent decree.

Last year, then-Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young faced scrutiny as the reform movement ramped up following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on Memorial Day, just as Baltimore leaders hammered out the budget. Young blocked the Baltimore City Council’s attempt to reallocate the police funds the council slashed from his proposed budget to other services.

The former Democratic mayor said it’s a challenge for elected officials to meet the demands of those seeking long-term change.

“Anybody can talk about those kinds of things when they are running for office,” Young said.

But as the head of city government, he said, a mayor has other considerations, such as union contracts with built-in salary increases.

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“It looks like the police budget is bloated, but it really isn’t,” he said.

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Young, too, noted the city is tasked with investing in the department through the consent decree, which the city agreed to after a U.S. Justice Department investigation in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore police custody found a pattern of unconstitutional policing.

“To his credit, he recognized you can’t cut the police,” Young said of Scott.

The judge overseeing the decree, U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar, has said many of its ideals align with a national movement to defund the police, as far as shifting resources from law enforcement to other services. However, Bredar said the city cannot reasonably cut funding from the department until alternate systems are in place.

”A key indicator of political leadership and maturity, however, is the recent decision of city leaders not to reflexively cut the police budget now, in 2021, before there are credible plans in place to transfer some of these functions away from the police department to more suitable entities inside and outside of city government,” he said.

Lydia Walther-Rodriguez, the Baltimore and Central Maryland region director of the immigrant advocacy group CASA, said CASA and other organizations are continuing to lobby for transferring funds to other services to invest in communities.

CASA, Citizens Policing Project and Organizing Black are among more than 30 organizations that form the Campaign for Justice, Safety & Jobs advocacy group. It formed in the wake of the unrest following Gray’s death in 2015. Walther-Rodriguez said the groups are starting an intensive canvassing effort this summer to gather community input on where funds should be spent, and the group will continue to pressure city leaders to defund the police.

“The community is going to shape where it should be invested,” she said.

The group has a standing meeting with Scott “to make sure that this is happening” and to ensure community voices are being uplifted, she said. Specifically, they are advocating the city divest $100 million from police in the next two years and reallocate those funds elsewhere.

“We are in a different time than in 2015 when we got the consent decree,” she said.

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