Every subdivision in Maryland except for one has the authority to require its police department’s senior commanders to live in that jurisdiction. The one exception isn’t some far-flung locale like Garrett County in Western Maryland or Somerset County on the Eastern Shore; it’s Baltimore City. Why? For the most legalistic of reasons. Technically, the Baltimore Police Department is a state agency, so it requires the General Assembly to give the city permission. Legislation to do just that was approved 37-9 by the state Senate last week but not before a Republican senator felt obligated to deliver a few cheap shots in its direction.
In floor debate, Sen. Robert Cassilly — a Harford County Republican, former county councilman and Bel Air mayor — said it would be unhelpful in Maryland’s fight against crime. He went further, however, fretting that legislating where police live was yet another sign that “we’ve” politicized law enforcement and criminal justice. “We’ve got to stop fooling around,” the senator concluded.
We would generally agree with Mr. Cassilly on the overall point of not politicizing law enforcement, but it’s clearly too late for that. Treating Baltimore as a plantation where state lawmakers in Annapolis, two-thirds of whom are white and 69% are male, can decide what laws can apply in every county but not to the city is hardly a new development. Why is it acceptable for Harford County to wield police residency requirements as it chooses (the county has not imposed one to date, incidentally) but not the state’s largest city? Because — and this is the important subtext to his remarks — he and likely many of his constituents do not believe the Baltimore City is up to the task of self-governance.
Whether in the halls of the State House or the less polite forums to be found in social media, there has been a clear rise in the tendency to speak of Charm City in the third person as in “them” or “they.” It is “their” violent crime problem. It is “their” schools. It is “their” unemployment. And not so much about “us” and “our.” We will let our readers draw their own conclusions about why this is, but the separation, the “otherness” it implies, is unmistakable. And, by no coincidence, that’s exactly what requiring top police to live in the city is about addressing.
In case the news hasn’t gotten out to Harford County, Baltimore has a serious problem with city residents not having confidence in police. Corruption, mass arrests, discriminatory policies, brutality, all have played a role. But so has the intrinsic problem of officers who simply don’t understand the neighborhoods they serve. How could they? They often didn’t grow up in them, didn’t go to local schools, don’t even understand the reference points. It’s why the department, under Commissioner Michael Harrison, has been pushing to hire local residents. Several years ago, the City Council approved a property tax credit for police and firefighters who choose to live in Baltimore. But there’s just so much that incentives can do.
Baltimore already requires the city’s civilian top officials including agency heads to live here. If the bill passes and the City Council then approves some version of a residency requirement, just 67 top police commanders would be affected. That’s less than 3% of the workforce. Is the city so lacking in decent housing that 67 homes can’t be found? If so, that’s an argument for spending a lot more tax dollars on housing instead of salaries for top commanders. Just how repugnant do the people sworn to serve and protect find the place they are supposed to be protecting? At some point, city taxpayers may start wondering why they’re shoveling money to people with such disdain for their community.
Last month, Commander Harrison testified against the bill. His objection is simple. He would prefer to choose the department’s leadership based solely on their skills and not on their residency. That’s a reasonable point of view given the challenge of recruitment. But it’s one that the City Council should consider, not lawmakers in Annapolis. City Hall is where a compromise might be found. Annapolis is where politics intrudes and where the city is often seen as no better than a poor relation looking for a handout by folks like Senator Cassilly.