Since its implementation, the Baltimore Police Department federal consent decree has mostly done what it set out to do. Police-related incidents are less frequent. Cultural and educational elements are in place.
The changes are welcome, but what the consent decree has not adjusted to is the idea that Baltimore needs a police department that is also better in ways besides its transparency and its behavior. Beyond reform, to address crime in a sustainable manner we need to tackle its root causes: poverty, inadequate workforce support, housing instability, inequalities in education and a lack of sufficient youth development and engagement opportunities.
A main goal of the consent decree, according to its own wording, is to ensure that the city and BPD “promote public safety in a manner that is fiscally responsible and responsive to community priorities.” Unfortunately, that fiscal responsibility has been open to broad interpretation; since 2016, BPD’s budget has continued to grow by a substantial $84 million, with this year’s budget approved at $560.4 million.
From the viewpoint of our federal and independent partners, continuing to increase spending is key to the reform process: upgrading old facilities, extensive marketing and recruitment campaigns and the latest police technology. The consent decree as written does not envision a nimbler, more focused, more equitable and efficient police force. It does not envision using salary savings from a smaller, better-trained department as a way to cover the costs of the increased capital and operational needs. Bound to the letter of the decree, our partners can only envision a better-run and better-behaved police department — and the ever-increasing appropriation of taxpayer dollars are no object, in the pursuit of that goal.
Under this interpretation, it is impossible to implement legitimate reforms to make the BPD not only better behaved, but also smaller and cheaper, something which I and so many others wish we could do.
To solve this problem, we must renegotiate elements of the consent decree that would successfully decouple spending from reform. We have a window here where we can tackle BPD’s budget on a forensic level. However, whenever reductions in police spending are discussed, the public is treated to trumped up images of empty patrol divisions, courtesy of those who have chosen to use scare tactics during budget discussions, instead of engaging in real dialogues on fiscal priorities.
Study the budget book ,and you will see numerous opportunities to implement reforms without impacting public safety. Let us start with centralized services that every other city agency relies on, except BPD. Did you know that BPD has its own information technology department? Its own telecommunications? Its own inspector general? Its own audits department? We can start by tackling these redundancies.
Baltimore cannot continue down this path of wanting contradictory things: more money for police and more money for investing in our residents. If we continue to believe the fiction that more police spending equates to more safety, we are giving in to the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different result. But if we want a more effective police department, and we want to take government-wide responsibility for actually reducing crime, we can do that. Let’s start that conversation.
Bill Henry (Bill.firstname.lastname@example.org) is comptroller of Baltimore City.