While protests erupted across America following the death of George Floyd and “Defund the police” became a familiar rallying cry of the racial justice movement, Baltimore activist Ray Kelly noticed a key perspective missing from the national debate.
He wanted to hear from the people whose lives were at stake: those living in communities most impacted by violent crime, police misconduct, growing poverty and persistent disinvestment — communities like Sandtown-Winchester, the West Baltimore neighborhood where Freddie Gray died from injuries suffered in police custody five years before the wave of protests that gripped the nation in summer 2020.
“There were thousands of people protesting, but most weren’t from these impacted communities,” Kelly said. “As we saw ‘defund’ and ‘refund’ and all these taglines coming into play, we wanted to focus on listening and elevating their voices.”
His relatively new West Baltimore-based organization, the Citizens Policing Project, designed a study that involved interviewing community members about public safety, asking open-ended questions about their personal experiences, attitudes toward the police and proposed solutions. Kelly established the organization in 2018 to advocate for increased civilian oversight of the police department.
When asked whether they supported calls to defund police, only about 30% of more than 1,000 people the group interviewed said yes, according to a recent report that Kelly authored based on findings from the study.
“The immediate reaction … usually was to emphasize how violent and dangerous our streets are,” the report says.
Supporters of the defund movement in Baltimore want to transfer money directly from the police budget to schools, affordable housing, drug treatment and mental health programs — services meant to address the root causes of violence. Their voices likely will enter upcoming discussions about the city’s proposed 2023 budget, which was released Monday and calls for increasing police spending by $5 million.
“The money has to come from somewhere, and the biggest budget hog in Baltimore City is the police department,” said Jessi Ahart, digital organizer at Communities United, a Baltimore-based advocacy group. “We need to stop spending money on things that don’t work.”
She noted that Baltimore already spends more on policing per capita than other large American cities, according to data compiled by the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice. But its murder rate remains among the highest.
Funding schools a top priority
Interviews for the Citizens Policing Project study were conducted over several months in 2021 by a group of young people working for the organization.
One point the participants largely agreed on, according to the report, was that Baltimore should better fund public schools in its poorest neighborhoods. That would allow schools to become places where students could imagine a brighter future for themselves, Kelly said.
Instead of upgrading outdated buildings, increasing technology and maintaining much-needed extracurricular programs, Baltimore education officials have been closing schools due to decreased enrollment in some struggling communities.
In Sandtown-Winchester, the closure of William Pinderhughes Elementary left “an unattended vacant lot attracting all sorts of nefarious behavior” since the building “already bordered a flourishing open air drug market,” the report says.
Aside from boosting education funding, residents also want their elected officials to prioritize spending on programs and services that help people lift themselves out of poverty, including addiction and mental health treatment, affordable housing and job creation, according to the report.
In response to those findings, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott highlighted a $65 million increase in school funding included in the 2023 budget.
“I will continue to make targeted investments in our communities while also ensuring that BPD is appropriately funded to fulfill its obligations per the Consent Decree,” Scott said in a statement, referring to the court-ordered decree the city agreed to in 2017 after a federal investigation found a pattern of unconstitutional policing — particularly in poor, predominantly Black neighborhoods. “We have to fund both the implementation of the Consent Decree and areas that will pave a new way forward for our city.”
In the report Kelly argued that investments in schools and social programs, if done properly, could decrease violent crime and reduce the need for policing eventually, allowing Baltimore to safely shrink its police budget. He proposes first investing in services that address the root causes of violence, then decreasing police spending.
But he acknowledged that getting officials on board with the front-end investment could prove difficult.
Bracing for change that takes time
The report is titled “The Long Game” because there is no quick fix for the entrenched social problems in Baltimore that so often garner negative headlines, Kelly said.
“The ever-changing dynamic of police reform in Baltimore City has made it extremely difficult to emphasize the ongoing need for community investment as the media continues to paint a picture of war zones and anarchy when crime is high,” the report says.
Although the study arose largely from the 2020 racial justice protests, Kelly said its themes remain relevant, especially following Gov. Larry Hogan’s recent announcement committing $45 million to fund police and prosecutors to better combat surging violent crime in Baltimore.
Meanwhile, Baltimore officials will start discussing the city’s proposed 2023 budget. In the wake of the 2020 protests, City Council voted to eliminate roughly $22 million in police spending, only to pass a $28 million increase last year, which officials said was needed to cover rising health insurance and pension costs. The proposed $5 million increase in 2023 would fund additional positions for the new Gun Violence Reduction Strategy, create more civilian jobs, cover rising health care and inflation costs, and help raise starting salaries for rookie officers.
Some of those efforts are aimed at addressing a deepening worker shortage. The department is required to adequately staff patrol, investigations and internal affairs positions under the consent decree.
Breaking News Alerts
In his report, Kelly recommends a more inclusive process for developing the city’s annual budget proposal; he called for giving council members more say instead of relying almost solely on the mayor’s office.
Meanwhile, residents interviewed for the study reported little to no change in their dealings with police since the consent decree mandated significant reforms.
Among other things, the settlement limited how police can engage with people suspected of criminal activity and required more supervision of officers and training in de-escalation. It also called for enhanced civilian oversight and transparency.
Kelly, who previously served as the lead community liaison for the monitoring team overseeing the consent decree, said many people in those neighborhoods are losing hope that police interactions will ever improve.
However, the study also found that younger people were more supportive of sharing their stories and experiences with both police and community members, especially negative interactions with law enforcement.
“We have this blueprint for equitable policing, but we can’t seem to get it implemented at the street level,” Kelly said. “Where is the urgency?”
That’s part of the reason more people are moving out of neighborhoods like Sandtown-Winchester when they can afford to, the report says: “Seeing the ever-growing violence fueled by an unchecked fentanyl epidemic, minimal effective police presence, and the continued blind eye shown by their elected representatives, who could blame them?”