Members of the Baltimore City Council and police accountability advocates publicly pressured members of Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration to speed up their implementation of local control of the city’s police department.
The pleas came during a meeting of the council’s Public Safety and Government Operations committee to discuss legislation before the Maryland General Assembly to move the process forward.
The state has controlled the Baltimore Police Department since 1860, when lawmakers seized authority amid deadly street fighting. In November, however, Baltimore voters overwhelmingly approved a charter amendment that establishes the department as a city agency. The amendment became effective last month.
Since then, however, some members of the city’s Local Control Advisory Board have outlined a slower timeline for implementation of the plan, arguing public discussion is still needed on the format local control will take. Additional language in city law must also be amended to allow city officials to supersede the power of the police commissioner.
“What I don’t completely grasp and what I don’t think we should do is further delay legislative authority to City Council,” said Councilman Mark Conway, chairman of the public safety committee. “This is an issue that’s been out there for decades, over a century now. We know where the voters lie on that issue, and I think it’s important to take that step.”
Many advocates offered harsher warnings at Tuesday evening’s meeting.
“Y’all really out there playing in our faces, playing in the faces of all the voters of Baltimore City,” said Rob Ferrell, a senior organizer with Organizing Black, who argued Scott has taken multiple steps to delay the process despite advocating for local control. “It needs to stop.”
Several bills have been introduced by the General Assembly to address the wording change necessary to enact local control. Currently, city law states no ordinance other than those enacted by the mayor “shall conflict, impede, obstruct, hinder or interfere with the powers of the Police Commissioner,” effectively leaving the City Council powerless.
State Sen. Jill P. Carter of Baltimore, a Democrat, has introduced legislation that would repeal the wording and make local control effective June 1. Democratic State Del. Caylin Young, also of Baltimore, has introduced a bill that would also cut the language, but make implementation effective October 2024. Young, who sits on the Local Control Advisory Board and works for the city’s Office of Equity and Civil Rights, has argued the city will need more time for implementation.
Dana Moore, a co-chair of the advisory board and the city’s director of the Office of Equity and Civil Rights, told council members that the legislators have been working together to merge the competing bills and settle on a compromise implementation date.
Moore said the board is planning several public meetings to gather input on the format local control will take. While the group heard discussion about several different models, including a board of commissioners model used in cities like Los Angeles, the group ultimately coalesced around a model the city uses now for other agencies. The mayor would appoint the police commissioner, as he does now, and the appointment would need the approval of the City Council. The council would have the ability to legislate policies, such as those for body-worn cameras, that currently are under the control of the General Assembly, Moore said.
Council members questioned why more public input was needed.
“It almost seems obvious that the police department should operate like every other department of the city,” said Conway, a Democrat. “I don’t want us to overthink it.”
Councilman Zeke Cohen, also a Democrat, questioned whether there had been a “shift in posture” by the mayor toward local control, which he previously seemed passionate about.
“We seem to be going a slower, more deliberate route,” Cohen said. “Am I missing something? Why the change?”
[ Baltimore voters overwhelmingly approved local control of city police. So why could it get delayed to 2024? ]
Nina Themelis, interim director of the Mayor’s Office of Government Relations, said the mayor remains committed to local control. Legislative action will be taken before the end of the 2023 session, she said.
“That has not changed. It will not change,” Themelis said.
Maryland Policy & Politics
Councilwoman Odette Ramos, a Democrat, questioned whether the City Council will be able to legislate once the state’s repeal of the city’s charter language regarding the commissioner is effective. Elena DiPietro, a city attorney, said there will be nothing to stop the council from acting immediately, although the council can’t interfere with state agency operations or the charter powers of other city agencies, she said.
Asked who currently has legislative power over the Baltimore Police Department, DiPietro conceded that neither the General Assembly nor the City Council has the power to enact new laws at the moment.
Ramos said the June 1 timeline for enactment of the state legislation makes the most sense.
“Sometimes you just have to move,” she said.
Advocates for local control of police packed council chambers for the hearing and urged speedy implementation. Many expressed disappointment that Scott appeared to be backing off an issue he campaigned on.
Lydia Walther-Rodriguez of CASA Maryland called any further delay unacceptable.
“The community will surely remember any delay tactics come the next election cycle,” she said.