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Q&A: Brandon Scott on ‘defunding police,’ the BLM protests and his victory in Baltimore’s mayoral primary

City Council President Brandon Scott accepting the Democratic nomination for Mayor of Baltimore outside his grandparents' house near where he grew up in Park Heights.
City Council President Brandon Scott accepting the Democratic nomination for Mayor of Baltimore outside his grandparents' house near where he grew up in Park Heights. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore City Council President Brandon Scott won this month’s Democratic mayoral primary with about 30% of the vote over a crowded field of candidates. Should he win the general election in November, Scott would take office in December at age 36. A week after being declared the winner of the primary, Scott answered questions about the election, the Black Lives Matter protests and the call to “defund police” while Baltimore’s long surge of violent crime continues into its sixth year.

First, I wonder what it was like for you, waiting on the results of this month's election. Because of mail-in voting, we never had to wait so long for a final tally before.

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It was an unprecedented election. We had to be nimble and go through a lot of changes with all that was happening. But it wasn’t like I had the opportunity to sit around and keep refreshing the [election results webpage] over and over and over again. We were in the City Council budget period there, and I had to focus on that. But it was amazing to see the momentum swing our way each day.

The early results showed former Mayor Sheila Dixon with an impressive lead. You weren’t worried?

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When [campaign manager Marvin James] said the day after the primary that, when the final numbers were in, we would win, everyone thought we were crazy. But we took the time to actually talk to people in vote-by-mail places and folks who had run that kind of campaign, so we knew the younger voters would come out a little later, and that was in our favor. So we were very confident.

In 2011, the year you were elected to City Council, only 23% of registered city voters took part in the primary election. This year more than twice that did. Nearly half of registered voters turned out, and under challenging circumstances with the coronavirus and mail-in ballots. Why do you think that happened?

First, the most important thing to say is, I am extremely proud and inspired by the record turnout, especially by the young people who turned out and the new voters who turned out. But what it shows is, Baltimoreans are engaged and care about the future of their city. They want change, they want a new way, they want a new structure of city government. On Election Day, you could feel that energy. I could feel it out on the streets at the protests a couple of days before. What this shows is that people are no longer going to accept the status quo of Baltimore because it has not been working for them.

You ran against some talented Democrats with good ideas. Are you going to include them in any of your planning for the months and years ahead?

I said that during the campaign and that wasn’t just campaign jargon. I know that these individuals are very smart, very talented. Many I’ve known for quite some time and I have worked with some of them. So absolutely, I’m going to be reaching out to them individually in the coming weeks and months and talk to them about their ideas, talk about how they’d be willing to help me bring Baltimore into its best state.

What's your view of what's been happening in the streets since the death of George Floyd? What is it this time that seems to have pushed people into a sustained demand for racial justice?

This is really the biggest civil rights call-to-action of my generation, and in a generation. George Floyd’s unfortunate murder was the breaking point. People are only going to ask politely for so long, right? That’s the reality, and when you think about this … we’d be very remiss not to mention the amount of young people who have turned out to demand change and action. Just like, during the civil rights movement, following the church bombing, where Dr. Hrabowski, a stalwart in our community, and his class took to the street and demanded change.

That’s Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County. He was 13 years old in 1963 and growing up in Birmingham, Alabama when the 13th Street Baptist Church was bombed, killing four little girls.

And that was the changing point. It’s different when the world sees that children are crying out for change. And what you’re seeing in this movement — young people, black people, white people, everyone coming together … The protests here in Baltimore have been some of the most well-organized and haven’t had issues. You can also see — and I’ve been involved in that — Baltimoreans who make sure things don’t escalate. What makes the difference now is a coalition of people who are simply not going to wait any longer and not going to ask politely. They are going to get more aggressive and more organized, and people have got to pay attention.

In what ways do you see the current uprising shaping or changing your plans as the city’s likely next mayor?

I ran a campaign focused on change and what has happened with the uprising has solidified the viewpoints I’ve had for a long time. I ran a campaign before calling out the need for deep structural change. I passed [racial equity] legislation two years ago [in City Council]. When I passed that equity law, many people looked at me like I was insane: ‘Why does a city that’s run by black people need to have a law that says it needs to be equitable to black people?’ But now we know that I am going to have the support of the citizenry to do those things. I’ve been in Annapolis fighting to try to open up internal affairs complaints [about police], trying to make the police department a locally controlled [not state] agency. Or even just last year when we were pushing bills that say we shouldn’t use gag orders [in settling police brutality lawsuits], people were telling us that this stuff was too radical. Now [opponents] will find themselves in an awkward position because they know the citizens are demanding that kind of change.

When you hear people demand that we “defund police,” what is your reaction to that phrase?

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Well, when I hear it, I’m hearing people say that we should reduce the policing budget, reinvest in other areas and re-imagine what public safety is. And remember, for years we’ve talked ad nauseam about violence as a public health issue. I said at last year’s budget hearing, and I was clear with the BPD, that we know that we have to reduce the city’s dependence on BPD and re-imagine our budget. We know the Kirwin Commission funding [for schools] — that bill is coming due. We know we have to increase how we do recreation and parks, the health department, how we deal with drug treatment, how we deal with violence interruption, housing insecurity, workforce development, all of those things. The key is we have to be responsible in doing it. We have to understand we’re still a city that has a lot of violence and, while we’re reforming our police department under a federal consent decree, we have to honor that. But we have to responsibly and systematically switch the way our city operates because we can’t continue with the model we have because what we have is not working. We’ve had this problem for every year of my life.

I get all that. But “defund police”? It seems a problem if you have to explain that what you mean is literally not what you’re saying.

We have to do a better job of explaining to folks what we’re talking about — it’s about making sure the police department’s share of the budget is not overwhelming, or causes us not to be able to invest in other areas that we need to, and [knowing] what the police are actually responsible for because we expect too much from them right now.

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Do you think the police department is understaffed? The consent decree monitors say the department needs 300 more officers.

The BPD is understaffed based on operating in the manner in which it does today. It’s not as understaffed as previously stated. We’re talking about 300 as opposed to 500 or 600 or whatever ridiculous numbers we heard in the past. But I also want to point out that, as we go through the process of police redistricting, something that hasn’t happened since the 1950s essentially, as we make sure cops are doing cops jobs and civilians are doing civilian jobs, as we re-imagine how we deal with mental health issues … in the city — all of that will have an effect on staffing. That’s the tough work I’m talking about: Responsibly reducing the [police] budget.

Do you think Police Commissioner Michael Harrison is on the right track?

I’m not happy with the continuing rise of murders in Baltimore. It’s not acceptable and we can’t be complacent. The commissioner needs a mayor who will hold him accountable, one who is prepared to implement a holistic public safety plan that supports BPD’s crime plan, and that’s something he has not had. While we have the crime issues, we also have to uplift some of the things I’ve been calling for — studying staffing, starting to civilianize, online reporting for minor crimes — and once I get into that seat I will have a better [sense of] what’s going on. Right now the jury is still out. But understand that I will have a working relationship with him and will be making that assessment as we move forward.

Do you feel the chill between the Fraternal Order of Police and the commissioner, and to what extent do you think that is contributing to persistent violent crime?

As City Council President, on multiple occasions, I’ve offered myself and my office to mediate those issues. I’m going to do the same thing when I’m mayor, bring them together. I’m not expecting any of us to always agree, but we have to do what’s best for citizens and our officers and figure out a way to work together and not have these things go back and forth. That’s not something I’m going to be tolerating.

Does it contribute to crime?

All in all, I don’t think that contributes to what’s happening on the street.

You got about 44,000 votes in the primary. Anything you’d like to say to the roughly 104,000 Democrats who didn’t vote for you?

I want to be the mayor for everybody. I want people to challenge me, to hold me accountable; that I’ll be accessible. But I really mean it when I say I want to be the mayor who does the right thing over the popular one. Because Baltimore needs that deep, structural change. It probably will not be pretty but it’s necessary for us to move forward and be a better Baltimore.

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