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Call to ‘defund’ police in Baltimore and elsewhere raises the question: What would that look like?

Baltimore police officers wearing face masks while keeping an eye on demonstrators as they continue to protest the dewath of George Floyd.
Baltimore police officers wearing face masks while keeping an eye on demonstrators as they continue to protest the dewath of George Floyd. (Kenneth K. Lam)

For decades, Baltimoreans have lamented the high percentage of the city budget that goes toward public safety at the detriment of other needs that could ultimately help keep down crime in the first place.

At the same time, faced with high crime rates and calls for reform, police have said they need more resources: more officers, more training, more technology. The federal consent decree now all but requires it.

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Now those issues are in the public spotlight and coming to a head. Local and national calls for reform are leading to a rallying cry to “defund” police, catching the attention of some national and local political leaders.

The calls mean different things to different people. Some organizations pushing for police reform want fewer resources for police and more money for the community, such as mediation programs, increased education funding and other preventive measures that don’t include abolishing police — not yet at least.

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Others, such as the People’s Power Assembly, which has organized some of the city’s largest protests of the past two weeks, envision a city without police and instead community-led peace forces.

The group Leaders for a Beautiful Struggle has been a leading local advocacy group pushing for reform with legislators in Annapolis, and envisions a scenario where police are seen as a last resort for community problem-solving.

Dayvon Love, LBS’s policy director, said in an interview that the ideas are not new, but his group is tailoring its message to audiences that haven’t considered the concepts before now. To that end, they are not calling for an immediate disbanding of police.

“It is not enough just to demand that police budgets are defunded," the group wrote on its website this week. "It is not enough to suggest that merely investing in social programs will be enough to address the violence in places like Baltimore. There needs to be viable alternatives that have the institutional infrastructure to put in place community controlled measures of public safety.”

LBS says such infrastructure would include a buildup of “violence interrupters" programs such as Safe Streets, in which members of the community defuse conflicts; a network of community mediators; and community-based supports that “address the traumas that play a big role in perpetuating violence in our communities.”

“When you give people, in the face of issues of safety and violence, two options — more police or less police — they’re going to choose more police,” Love said.

Many who gathered to protest this month pointed to over-reliance on police, from officers responding to mental health distress calls to use of “militarized” units like SWAT teams.

“While it’s perfectly legitimate in some places to say we over-invest in police departments, it’s often a situation where the devil is in the details."


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Police leaders have sometimes lamented some of those same issues. Former Baltimore police commissioners Anthony Batts and Thomas Frazier have spoken openly about police being asked to take on too many societal problems for which they are not trained or the best option.

“What this conversation forces, and it’s a healthy conversation, is: What do we really need police for?” said Daniel Webster, a professor with the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health who has studied Baltimore Police for years. “What kinds of things are they doing now that others could be doing just as good or better?”

But Webster said that cities can’t simply turn a blind eye to violence.

“If you are living in parts of West Baltimore for example, where they’ve been so resource-deprived, yet they see more and more increases [in spending] for the police, they say, ‘This isn’t fair, and this is not what we want,’” Webster said. “But at the same time, those same communities are really struggling with violent crime, and for public or private dollars to be invested in those communities, you need violence to go down.”

Stephen Rushin, of the Loyola University of Chicago, last week published a research paper about defunding police that highlights funding disparities across the country and warns against moving too quickly.

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“While it’s perfectly legitimate in some places to say we over-invest in police departments, it’s often a situation where the devil is in the details, and defunding agencies that already have limited resources and significant public safety demands can inhibit their ability to effectively carry out some of the responsibilities,” Rushin said in an interview.

The debate over how to reform police comes as Baltimore is debating the police department’s budget, and where its resources will be allocated. Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison was not available Tuesday to comment about the budget or the current push for reform, a department spokesperson said.

By most measures, compared with other cities, Baltimore has one of the highest-funded police departments per capita. At the same time, the city has been grappling with record homicides rates and the worst rate of robberies in the country, and it continues struggling with corruption while employing methods that disproportionately affect people of color.

The consent decree monitoring team found that the department is understaffed by 300 officers, and lacks critical infrastructure, training and technology.

“The consent decree mandates a number of different reforms, and we believe staffing and technology are critical to advancing those reforms,” said Ken Thompson, the lead monitor.

“Consent decrees are not cheap,” Rushin said. “To the extent that something like defunding is ever on the table, at a minimum it needs to be done very carefully to not exacerbate problems.”

To critics, the police department’s inability to suppress crime and police corruption within the ranks shows the city need not throw any more money at a troubled department.

“BPD has continued to fail while their budget continues to grow. We say no more!” said the group Organizing Black.

Organizing Black is calling on, among other things, divestment of 50% of the police department budget into community programs and the abolishment of the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, a state law that guides police disciplinary rules and procedures.

Black Lives Matter leader DeRay Mckesson said it's time to rethink how police departments are reformed so that they can best serve the interests of residents and reduce incidents of police violence.
Black Lives Matter leader DeRay Mckesson said it's time to rethink how police departments are reformed so that they can best serve the interests of residents and reduce incidents of police violence. (Patrick Semansky / AP)

DeRay McKesson, the Baltimore-raised Black Lives Matter co-founder, wrote in a Medium post that too often police reform focuses on community policing, body cameras, bias and/or mental health training, and hiring more police officers of color.

“These ideas sound good, but they are ineffective. Worse, they enable elected officials and police chiefs to tout their response when nothing has fundamentally improved,” McKesson wrote.

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McKesson stops short of calling for defunding or abolishing police, writing instead that there should be implementation of policies to reduce the power of the police, coupled with strategies that shrink the role and scope of the police.

He has called for the immediate ban on eight policies that, if outlawed, could lead to “measurable decreases in police killings." Those measures include banning chokeholds, requiring de-escalation techniques by officers, requiring a duty by other officers to intervene if they witness misconduct, and a ban on shooting at moving vehicles.

Andre Powell, of the People’s Power Assembly, spoke at a rally outside City Hall on Monday night and says he envisions community councils, even down to the block level, working together to regulate disputes and come up with solutions. What about crimes like homicides?

"If they want to depend on police, go ahead,” Powell said. “As we know, there’s already a tremendous number of unsolved murders.”

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