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Desist, delete and defund the misleading rhetoric about cops and crime, Gov. Hogan | COMMENTARY

Gov. Larry Hogan announces his “Re-Fund the Police Initiative” on Friday, Oct. 15 in Annapolis. (Bryn Stole/Baltimore Sun).
Gov. Larry Hogan announces his “Re-Fund the Police Initiative” on Friday, Oct. 15 in Annapolis. (Bryn Stole/Baltimore Sun). (Bryn Stole/Baltimore Sun)

Last week, Gov. Larry Hogan had a good idea that he did his best to ruin.

He couldn’t simply announce his plan to spend $150 million more on public safety, with much of it going to police salaries and much-needed body cameras statewide. That would have gotten him accolades from across party lines. It would have been the sort of thing Maryland voters thought they were getting from their moderate Republican governor when they twice elected him the state’s chief executive, despite the state’s Democratic leanings.

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No, instead Mr. Hogan on Friday decided to spin a different and highly misleading narrative by casting the aid as a “Re-Fund the Police Initiative,” a refutation of the defund the police movement. And whom did he accuse of being at the center of this “all-out assault on the law enforcement community?” That would be Baltimore, the city that increased its police budget this year by $28 million.

So why single out Baltimore? There are certainly progressive voices who seek to defund. And the city has a gun violence epidemic that pre-dates the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s been the focus of Mayor Brandon Scott since he took office 10 months ago. The governor could have pointed to other jurisdictions in this state that have been far stingier with police spending this year, but he did not. He could have observed that an uptick in crime has been a statewide concern. He did not. Nor did he bother to mention that the city has made some strides recently in public safety, raising the homicide clearance rate, for example. But then that would not have fed his narrative. With four men standing behind him, none of them African American, he preferred to trot out the usual rhetoric that suggests Baltimore — Maryland’s largest city and where a majority of residents are African American — can’t govern itself, that’s it’s soft on murderers, that it’s anti-police.

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There’s really only one possible explanation: It plays well with the primarily white, primarily-older Fox News crowd, with whom facts don’t matter but reinforcing stereotypes do. Mr. Hogan has shown interest in serving on a presidential ticket, and perhaps he just wants to have a national audience so he can be relevant on that level within his party.

He certainly demonstrated a willingness to throw Maryland crime victims under the bus. His claim that the General Assembly was to be blamed for cutbacks in victim services program also is demonstrably untrue. So why poison his relationship with Democratic lawmakers on that topic as another session approaches in January? Likely because it fits that narrative of Democrats being soft on crime and untroubled by its victims. He doesn’t appear to much care about getting anything done; he’s just in it for the sound bite.

That’s all very well for people standing on the sidelines. But that’s not where Mr. Hogan is. He’s still governor. He’s still as responsible for public safety in this state, Baltimore included, as anyone else. Arguably more than anyone else because he has the most direct authority and greatest resources at his disposal. He might use them to improve parole supervision. Mayor Scott has asked repeatedly for the governor to be part of the anti-crime conversation, either by attending one of the city’s recently-revived Criminal Justice Coordinating Council meetings or by getting a street-level view with a police ride-along, and he has declined both. Better to keep Baltimore at arm’s length, better to keep it as a favorite target, better to let its problems fester so he has a talking point.

This is the sort of behavior one might expect from some alt-right demagogue in the Deep South; it’s jarring to see it in Maryland. One can only imagine what state Commerce Secretary Kelly M. Schulz must think of it. She’s seen as the GOP’s front-runner for governor next year. She’ll need support from Democrats and independents to win in the fall. Good luck with that now. In reality, the battle to address city homicides is more complex than having a “hang ‘em high” prosecutor or imposing mandatory sentences. It’s about providing job opportunities and reducing poverty, upgrading public education and addressing systemic racism, hiring more social workers to help keep families intact and, yes, sometimes it involves reopening a neighborhood recreation center, as the mayor did Monday, so that the next generation is steered toward a safer, more productive path.

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This narrative that Baltimore cares not a whit about its murder victims or is anti-police or whatever Mr. Hogan and his allies care to claim is only making things worse, and that means more lives will be lost. Great leadership is not about finding a phony scapegoat to blame; it requires building coalitions, reaching across political, racial and jurisdictional lines and finding effective strategies to attack the root problems. Mr. Hogan may claim to have the back of police officers as he did in a speech Monday at a conference of police chiefs and sheriffs in Ocean City, but that’s not really true either. His misleading rhetoric has added fuel to the fire of those who would seek to completely abolish the police. That’s the final irony of it.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.

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