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Baltimore House delegation endorses bill to end state control of city police; ex-city solicitor warns of liability

Baltimore House delegation endorses bill to end state control of city police; ex-city solicitor warns of liability
The Baltimore Police Department was established in the 19th century as a state agency. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore’s House delegation unanimously voted Friday to endorse a bill that would give the city full control over its police department — a change City Council members have sought for years.

The bill’s sponsor, Democratic Del. Talmadge Branch of East Baltimore, has said he sees no reason why the city should be the only jurisdiction in Maryland with a police department that is technically a state agency.

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Similar efforts have failed in past years, but Mayor Catherine Pugh expressed support this year for the legislation. The city House delegation’s approval increases the bill’s chances of passage in the current General Assembly session.

In the 19th century, the Baltimore Police Department was established as a state agency. It is governed by the Public Local Laws of Baltimore, which are enacted by the legislature.

However, revenue from city taxpayers funds the department’s budget and the mayor hires and fires the police commissioner.

Because of the unique arrangement, the City Council sometimes runs into roadblocks when attempting to make changes to laws that govern city police. For instance, when the City Council attempted in 2014 to require officers to wear body cameras, the city solicitor’s office called the legislation illegal and argued council members had no authority over a state agency. The council pushed forward with its bill, but then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake vetoed it, while moving herself to implement body camera use by officers.

The delegation vote came as former Baltimore City Solictor George Nilson wrote an Abell Foundation report raising some concerns about the legislation.

The police department became a state agency 158 years ago in response to the rise of a political party, the Know-Nothing Party, in the city, Nilson wrote. By 1860, the party had “complete political control of Baltimore city, relying on violence and coercion,” according to his report. The General Assembly reached the conclusion that the city had proven itself incapable of maintaining order in the city and accordingly enacted the Public Local Laws that made the department a state agency.

Nilson wrote the legislation now before the legislature would permit the City Council to “micromanage (for good or ill) policing in the city of Baltimore;” subject police employees to city — not state — ethics rules, and cause the police department to “lose the current protections which exist under state sovereign immunity, which would likely result in much higher payouts for lawsuits and settlements against the city.”

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