You would never know it from the tone of political press conferences, but there seems to be something of a consensus growing on police funding: We need more of it. Governor Hogan recently increased the starting salary of the Maryland State Police (MSP) to $51,000, while the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) increased their starting salary to $60,000.
I think all Marylanders can cheer this growing bonhomie among our leaders. The only problem is, of course, that spending per capita on police has no proven correlation with lower crime, as Baltimoreans already know: We spend more per capita on police than New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Supporters of greater spending argue increasing base police pay is needed to attract new officers, an argument that, frankly, makes a lot of sense.
Adding a police officer to a city’s force has been demonstrated to prevent between 0.06 and 0.1 homicides, statistically. If true, this finding would make BPD’s 259 open positions a full-blown crisis, enabling the deaths of up to 26 people. The problem is that low pay is not the reason for the understaffing, and slightly higher pay is unlikely to fix it.
A friend I’ll refer to as “Matt” provides a good example why. Matt became an officer with the BPD shortly out of high school, attracted by a higher starting salary and the relative desperation of the BPD for new officers compared to county departments. He was trained by the BPD. He became a veteran officer. He was the kind of cop our leaders acknowledge we badly need. Then he left for a safer department with similar pay and better benefits 10 minutes down the road.
A 2020 retention plan from the BPD bears this anecdote out. Nearly as many officers resign as retire, and three quarters of those who resign do so in the first five years on the job. Officers cited poor veteran pay, a lack of support from leadership, poor equipment, problems with understaffing and a broken pipeline for advancement as reasons why. High starting officer pay has been Baltimore’s main selling point for decades, but it hasn’t addressed our wider competitiveness.
Maryland’s leaders need to recognize this problem as yet another result of Baltimore’s inequitable relationship with her counties. In the 1970s, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission famously described Baltimore County as a “white noose” around Baltimore, choking the city from investment and capital. When it comes to policing, the effect is perhaps even greater, as the BPD competes for talent with everyone from Baltimore County to MSP to the Fort Meade Police.
The state has recognized this uneven competition as an issue and taken steps to address it in other areas. The Kirwan Commission aimed to address similar disparities in education by distributing funding among school systems. The majority of Baltimore’s school funding already comes from a state funding model, while the city receives yet more for school construction. The State also subsidizes transportation funding and water and sewer funding. Perhaps we should do the same with the police.
State funding would certainly make sense politically (the governor could re-fund the police and Baltimore could defund the police!), but funding alone is unlikely to make the city safer for residents. The competition for police officers among municipalities will continue regardless of how it is funded. Maryland should instead focus on reducing the need for police departments to compete in the first place, by supplementing and replacing police functions. We could increase funding to the state health system and expand diversion efforts for those suffering from mental illnesses. We could consolidate municipalities’ support services (such as crime labs) under the Maryland State Police. We could even move all major crimes investigation under MSP, ensuring an established staff of veteran detectives work every homicide.
Calls to re-fund the police would be more compelling if we ever stopped funding our departments in the first place. Funding alone has clearly not addressed Baltimore’s murder crisis. If Maryland ever wants to get serious about making Baltimore a safer city, we need to start by addressing our real issues.
Ted Walsh (email@example.com) is a budget analyst within Maryland’s Department of Budget and Management.