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Baltimore Police officials say budget increase is tied to pension and health care costs, warn that cuts could conflict with federal consent decree

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison and city budget officials fielded questions Monday night from City Council members on a proposed $555 million budget — a 4% increase from last year, which the department attributed to rising fixed costs.

Harrison warned that any cuts to the tight budget would adversely affect the department, potentially causing reductions to specialized units such as homicide and internal affairs, and would increase the current response times of 10 minutes. Additionally, Harrison said cuts would hamper progress made by the federal consent decree, which requires the department to implement sweeping reforms.

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Shortly after 11 p.m., the Council’s Ways and Means Committee voted the budget out of committee without any amendments. The spending plan will next face a vote from the full council body Tuesday.

City Solicitor Jim Shea said at the start of the hearing that reducing funding would flout the federal court overseeing the decree after U.S. Judge James K. Bredar said at April’s consent decree hearing that the department cannot withstand cuts at its early stage of the reform process.

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Shea noted that the court has at its disposal a range of potential sanctions should the city fail to adequately fund the department, including contempt of court, fines, incarceration and receivership.

“What is clear,” Shea said, “any cut will bring about immediate repercussions.”

Baltimore Finance Director Henry Raymond said Monday that the 4% increase of $21.4 million, would largely be from $7.6 in pension costs, $5.8 million increase in workers’ compensation costs and $7.3 million in health care costs.

The increase comes despite a rise in calls to reduce police funding, and shifting those costs and policing responsibilities to agencies outside law enforcement.

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Bredar said at last month’s hearing that funds could be shifted from police to other services later, but only after those alternatives are up and running.

Councilwoman Odette Ramos asked Harrison and other administration officials about the costs of the consent decree reforms. Harrison said that there would be “some overlap” between operating costs and costs associated with the consent decree, such as aspects of training and technology.

“It is going to be subjective in part,” Shea said.

In a brief presentation at the start of the hearing, Harrison said the department’s compliance bureau budget is $24 million, which includes training, body cameras, and consent decree implementation units. The funding would include a new records management system “to transition the agency from a paper-based to digital processes,” according to a copy of the presentation. The money would also include $1.6 million in funding for the training academy at the University of Baltimore campus.

City Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer asked Harrison later in the hearing for a total cost of reforms.

Harrison responded that the department has costs associated with its body camera program, and new records management system, but that those aren’t necessarily “whether we had the consent decree,” and said that some of those costs are a part of its operational needs.

Harrison was also asked about the length of the consent decree, which began four years ago. Some cities have taken eight to 10 years to receive compliance.

Harrison did not give a timeframe for when the department might reach compliance, but said it is “making great progress.” However, Harrison said, a lack of technology is hampering the efforts.

The department has created new policies, and retrained officers on them, including when to use force, or when to make a stop on the street or make an arrest.

But the next phase of the consent decree, which requires audits and compliance inspections by the U.S. Justice Department and the monitoring team, must be done digitally, not on the current paper-based system.

Council members questioned the department on a range of other issues, including costs of payouts for lawsuits alleging misconduct against police officers. Last year the city argued that because some of its rogue officers, who were indicted federally, had acted so far outside the scope of their employment that the city should not be held responsible for settlements involving the officers.

That argument has mostly been rejected by the state courts.

Council President Nick Mosby questioned members about $3 million costs in payouts in lawsuits from officers accused of misconduct, and any ongoing costs from the Gun Trace Task Force cases.

Budget Director Robert Cenname said the city did settle some cases over the past year, but it is unclear how much liability is remaining, and noted that claimants must bring any claims within a certain time frame.

Lisa Walden, the police department’s chief legal counsel, said the city has settled just over $15 million, and remains susceptible for additional lawsuits.

Baltimore Sun reporter Emily Opilo contributed to this article.

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