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‘Baltimore’s bloated police budget is bleeding the city dry’ | COMMENTARY

Protestors painted, in large pink lettering, a demand to DEFUND THE POLICE during a demonstration last year on Gay Street, near City Hall in Baltimore.
Protestors painted, in large pink lettering, a demand to DEFUND THE POLICE during a demonstration last year on Gay Street, near City Hall in Baltimore. (Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun)

Last week, Baltimore’s Board of Estimates (BOE) held its annual Taxpayer Night to discuss their preliminary Fiscal Year 2022 city budget, released April 7.

I testified before the BOE with Communities United and other residents to demand a moral realignment of our city’s budget priorities. This budget still calls for spending more on policing than on our schools and other things our communities really need. The proposed FY 2022 budget increases police department funding by $28 million — more than was cut last June by the City Council as thousands of us rallied and painted “DEFUND POLICE” outside City Hall.

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I hope that last week’s guilty verdicts for the killing of George Floyd — whose cruel murder sparked the grassroots wave of actions questioning police budgets in Baltimore and nationwide — remind Mayor Brandon Scott and the BOE just why last year’s police cuts were made.

Baltimore’s budget already exceeds per resident spending on police in 72 of the biggest cities in the U.S. Fiscal Year 2021 was the first year in recent memory when Baltimore police spending actually went down instead of up.

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Baltimore’s spending on police increased 173% between 1965 and 2005, even when adjusting for inflation, accounting for a larger and larger share of the city budget. Between just 2012 and 2018, the police department budget grew 42%. Meanwhile, the city’s population has declined, from 939,024 in 1960 to 640,064 in 2005 to 593,490 in 2019.

The FY 2022 preliminary budget reserves a whopping $555 million for police, increasing spending to $965 per resident while cutting $12 million in general funds from city public schools. These are the choices being made despite predictions of “historic lows” in city revenue amid pandemic and financial crisis for so many. For every dollar spent on the Police Department, the city has allocated 50 cents to Baltimore City Public Schools, 20 cents to Housing and Community Development, 11 cents to Parks and Recreation, 12 cents to the Office of Homeless Services and 1 cent to address Substance Use Disorders and Mental Health — when almost three times as many people die of overdose than murder in Baltimore.

Enough is enough. Baltimore’s bloated police budget is bleeding the city dry and cannot be justified by any rational reading of the data. Over the last several years, Baltimore has seen a relatively stable rate of violent crime with arrest rates dropping by nearly 50% since 2014. The police department budget has continued to grow even as homicides spiked in recent years. Yet, the research shows that investments in drug treatment, mental health support, educational completion programs, preschool and summer jobs for youth and supportive interventions for families in crisis have all proven to be less expensive and more effective in making communities safer.

Our #Defund2Refund campaign is gaining momentum for a 25% reduction in the city’s current police budget — savings to be reinvested in schools and community needs that actually support health and safety. A 25% cut would bring Baltimore’s police spending in line with the next most expensive city departments nationwide. As important, a 25% cut (about $137 million) is significant enough to help Baltimore meet its local increase in school funding ($161.5 million by 2030) required to receive almost $585 million more in state school funding, as promised under the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future.

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Mayor Scott led the effort to cut $22 million from the police budget last June. We welcomed his recent announcement of a task force to develop a five year plan to reduce the police budget and offer our assistance. This budget is an insult to his own words.

Rightsizing the police budget is essential to meaningful police reform and to re-imagining the relationship between the city government and police with the city’s most underfunded, overwhelmingly Black schools, neighborhoods and families.

We need to fix Baltimore’s structural problem of an entrenched, ever increasing police budget that consumes more and more of the city’s discretionary spending year after year. Mayor Scott, the first step has to be to stop increasing it.

Nabeehah Azeez (nabeehah.azeez@gmail.com) is a member of the board of Communities United and is a new homeowner in the 7th District’s Parkway community.

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