Baltimore Police commissioner Michael Harrison speaks to the Baltimore Board of Estimates.
Baltimore’s spending board is expected to approve a plan Wednesday that will relocate the city’s Police Academy to the University of Baltimore campus.
The city will lease the space for roughly $6.8 million over five years. Police say the move will allow the department to expand its academic facilities and allow more recruits to pass through each year.
“The facility they’re in presently is not what it should be,” said Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, who sits on the Board of Estimates. The space on the University of Baltimore’s downtown campus “is a space that’s conducive to what we need to do to be training our police officers.”
While the impending move is a cause for celebration for some, it has rankled others. The chair of the City Council’s public safety committee said the relocation was rushed forward without sufficient community engagement, or concern for the hole the academy’s loss would leave behind in Northwest Baltimore. Other community leaders had hoped the academy would be relocated instead to Coppin State University, one of Baltimore’s historically black institutions.
Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said he toured Coppin’s campus and determined its classrooms weren’t big enough to fit the department’s needs. The University of Baltimore space, meanwhile, is practically “move-in ready."
Harrison anticipates welcoming a December police class to the University of Baltimore facility, where large classrooms can fit between 50 and 75 students. The current Police Academy building, at 3500 W. Northern Parkway, is in bad condition and, as an old public school, has classrooms that can only fit about 30 students.
A Police Academy, Harrison said, is the “front door” to any policing organization. He said modernized space is a reflection of how the department is attempting to transform itself after a series of bruising scandals.
“It all starts with training,” Harrison said.
Gov. Larry Hogan last week threw his support behind the relocation, noting that the University System of Maryland has pledged to provide up to $2.4 million in funding to renovate the space.
“This will help put more officers on the street to bolster our urgent efforts to reduce violent crime in the city,” said Hogan, a Republican, in a statement.
The federal judge overseeing the Baltimore police consent decree has called forcefully for the state to contribute money towards a new police training facility, saying it should be a top priority of city leaders.
The troubled police department struggles with recruitment, leading to a shortage of officers on the streets. A previously released analysis found the patrol ranks have a 26% vacancy rate.
In addition to roughly $6.8 million in rent, the city will pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for parking and other fees associated with the move to the University of Baltimore.
Baltimore City Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, who represents the neighborhood that currently houses the academy, thinks the relocation was mishandled.
“With all the city-owned property we have, why are we paying these kinds of figures to be in midtown Baltimore?” said Schleifer, who is also chair of the public safety committee.
The councilman said he asked the city to host community engagement sessions prior to any announcement or decisions being made, but such meetings didn’t happen. The academy means a lot to his constituents — people feel safer when they see trainees jogging through their neighborhood, he said, and when young children observe the recruits, it helps them to imagine themselves as officers one day.
“To simply pick up and move without public conversation is just unacceptable,” Schleifer said.
He and other elected officials are now worried about what will become of the Northern Parkway building in a district already dealing with too many abandoned lots. Lester Davis, the mayor’s spokesman, said the majority of tenants are expected to stay in the building.
Maryland Del. Nick Mosby called the conditions at the old facility, located in a former public school building, “deplorable.” But he also doesn’t agree with the decision to move the Police Academy to midtown.
The Baltimore Democrat has for years been pushing to relocate the academy to Coppin State.
As a City Councilman in 2015, he sponsored a resolution calling for it to be moved to the West Baltimore institution’s Bishop L. Robinson, Sr. Justice Institute, a situation he called a “win-win.” The resolution passed easily through the council, including being co-sponsored by Young, who was then council president.
Coppin is a historically black university located in the heart of a community that has a strained relationship with law enforcement. How better to showcase the police department’s commitment to “community policing," Mosby argued, than by training future officers in West Baltimore?
“This is a slam dunk,” he said.
Mosby said the decision to move the police academy to the University of Baltimore won’t deter him. While the five-year lease at the University of Baltimore is expected to be approved, Mosby said he’s committed to finding a way to one day have Coppin host the academy.