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Md. should fund police like it does schools: based on need

Acting Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison holds the first of a series of community meetings on his first day on the job. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)

America's high-quality public schools have historically been seen as one of our great equalizers, yet it’s no secret that the quality of those public schools varies greatly depending on how they're funded. A rich county like Howard is naturally able to invest more in their schools than a poor city like Baltimore, where educational outcomes unsurprisingly lag behind the rest of the state. And, recognizing the injustice inherent to this system, Marylanders have taken steps to ensure the state corrects this funding inequity.

My question: Why not take the same approach to public safety?

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The inequality arguments are largely identical. Baltimore City is one of the poorest municipalities in the state, facing the worst crime in the state. Our funding needs are, just like in education, inverse to the city’s ability to pay. Baltimore City (median income $25,062) ended 2018 with 309 homicides — Baltimore County (median income $34,701) had 25.

The most important parts of police commissioner nominee Michael Harrison's contract aren't the salary or the guaranteed payout. They're the ones that give him the power to reshape the department and hold him accountable for doing it.

When you look at Baltimore’s police budget compared to its neighbors, it doesn’t particularly stand out. Baltimore spends about 17 percent of its operating budget on policing, versus 18 percent in Baltimore County and 17 percent in Harford. Yet, when you consider that Baltimore’s murder-rate was five times that of Baltimore County, and 10 times Harford’s, the similarity in their funding levels isn’t comforting; it’s shocking.

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As mentioned, Baltimore’s greater need for education funding is reflected in hefty state aid. The city budgeted $281 million for public schools in 2018, but the overall budget for Baltimore City Public Schools was $1.3 billion. Most of the difference between the two figures (about $866 million) is made up by state funding under the current funding formula. When presented with the obvious needs of poor children in our city, the state stepped up.

Yet, the majority of Maryland’s murders happened inside Baltimore City’s limits last year, and the state provides little in the way of financial assistance. Out of a $2.9 billion budget, Baltimore spends $480 million on police. That carries with it the horrible optics of the city paying more to lock our citizens up than to educate them, but it also reflects a genuine community need.

Legislative analysts in the General Assembly are now recommending deep cuts to Maryland Gov. Hogan’s plans for fighting crime in Baltimore, arguing the governor’s proposals lack details, aren’t evidence-based and won’t necessarily drive down crime.

So what could state funding look like for police? The state education funding formula provides per pupil funding (about $7,000), which is then adjusted up or down based on property values and income levels in each county. If we set up a police funding formula using the same metrics as for education, Somerset County (one of Maryland’s safest) would get an outsized share of aid. If the goal is to provide the best policing to the highest crime areas, a different funding formula would clearly be needed.In fact, the state may find there are better ways to support a city like Baltimore than direct funding. London, for instance, centrally manages all police jurisdictions in its 600-square-mile footprint through Scotland Yard. As a result, police in London are able to freely shift resources to where the need is greatest.

Compare that to here. Baltimore has faced a 500 officer staffing shortage for years, and our best officers take jobs in safer counties at the first possible opportunity. Simply bringing staffing decisions to the metropolitan or state level could provide benefits a few extra million dollars could not. Like so many of Baltimore’s issues, the problem is complex and the solutions more so. Policing alone is not a panacea, and regardless of where our funding comes from, those issues will likely remain. But if we’re going to tackle this challenge, it shouldn’t be Baltimore’s alone. Just like with education, the state should step-up.

Ted Walsh is a research associate at the Center for Public Policy and Private Enterprise at the UMD School of Public Policy. His email is tedwalsh7@gmail.com.

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