Budget hearings don’t normally bring out the happy campers anxious to rejoice in the status quo, but Mayor Brandon Scott may have been taken aback by both the unanimity and intensity of negative opinion over the city’s preliminary Fiscal 2022 budget expressed online Wednesday during an all-virtual Taxpayers’ Night. The focus was on a proposed $28 million increase in spending on the Baltimore Police Department, necessitated primarily, budget officials pointed out, by higher health insurance and pension costs. City residents in attendance were angry. They had expected cuts, not a 5% addition to law enforcement spending. And in what was clearly an organized effort, they made their disappointment clear. Where were the reforms that Mr. Scott promised when he ran for the city’s top post last year?
The mayor’s response was — quite reasonably — that in the middle of a pandemic, there is a need for continuity of services, and he repeated what has become a mantra of late, that the city is in the process of attempting to “re-imagine” its approach to public safety and how best to spend its money in the future. Meanwhile, the protesters — also, quite reasonably — reminded him that he ran on a platform of downsizing the department. There was no talk during the campaign of postponing efforts for at least a year while the whole matter was sorted out. And, as City Council president, Mr. Scott was not exactly silent on the “defund the police” movement, having endorsed a reduction in the police budget just last year.
Yet even then, Mr. Scott talked about treading carefully, and that’s what he now must do as mayor. It simply makes no sense to cut police funding without a plan in place that assures adequate public safety now and in the future, and that’s especially true at a time when the city’s homicide numbers are expected to surpass last year’s. It is fair to believe the city needs to spend more on the needs of low-income communities. It is not tenable to believe that reducing the police budget by some random number will immediately end incidents of gun violence. Yes, there may well be examples of a police response escalating matters — for that, one need look no further than the recently-concluded Derek Chauvin trial — but the city will continue to need officers to dispatch when those 911 calls come in and city residents are in mortal danger.
In some respects, what is happening to Mayor Scott is something that happens to everyone who rises in the political ranks from outsider-critic to occupying the desk where the buck stops. He must represent the interests of all city neighborhoods and all city residents. One strongly suspects that a survey of the broader community would find relatively few who want police to never show up at their doorstep, even if they encounter an armed intruder or burglary in progress. On the other hand, such a poll would undoubtedly find support for any number of reasonable reform,s such as using some portion of current police funding to provide qualified, medically trained intervention as a first response to domestic disputes instead of armed officers. But such a change first requires a plan. How would that work? How many would be hired? What would be the cost?
Still, it’s clear that distrust of police in this city runs high. There are many reasons for that, including well-documented cases of misconduct, racial bias and corruption. But it’s also obvious that changes are happening and have been since the death of Freddie Gray. It does the reform movement no good if it turns from cautious and thoughtful to abrupt and irresponsible. Think Baltimore struggles economically now? Imagine a future where city leaders make severe cutbacks in public safety at a time of high rates of gun violence and then matters growing worse. Much of the nation understands that something is fundamentally amiss in urban policing. It would be unwise to fumble this generational opportunity to set matters right because protesters at a budget hearing can’t abide the prospect of a properly-funded health care plan and pension for one year.
This kind of moderate approach to reform, this level of caution, careful planning and incremental steps, is not going to rally a lot of people to one’s side, like the national defund the police movement. It is not thrilling. It will not inspire marches or sign waving or campaign donations. That’s what makes it the harder, but more effective, strategy for Mayor Scott to stand behind.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.