State Del. Talmadge Branch submitted legislation Thursday to give Baltimore full control over its police department — a change Baltimore City Council members have been seeking for years.
Branch, an East Baltimore Democrat, 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.
“We’ve heard from the City Council and what it has to say about control,” Branch said. “It makes sense. The current law is so antiquated.”
Similar efforts have failed in past years, but the leadership of the city delegation to the General Assembly supports Branch’s bill, and Mayor Catherine Pugh is expressing initial support. Baltimore delegates Cheryl Glenn, who is chairwoman of the city delegation, Maggie McIntosh, and Curt Anderson are co-sponsors.
The Baltimore Police Department was established in the 19th century as a state agency. It is governed by the Public Local Laws of Baltimore City, which are enacted by the General Assembly.
However, revenue from city taxpayers funds the department’s budget and the mayor hires and fires its commissioner.
But due to the unique arrangement, the City Council sometimes runs into roadblocks when attempting to make changes to laws that govern city police.
In 2014, for instance, when the City Council attempted 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.
Two years ago, Anderson sponsored a bill similar to Branch’s in the legislature, but withdrew it after receiving legal advice that indicated the city could be more vulnerable to lawsuits and liable for more expensive payouts if the change was made.
"Making BPD a city agency will result in the BPD having only local governmental immunity," Sandra Benson Brantley, counsel to the General Assembly, wrote at the time. "Unlike state sovereign immunity, which provides 'total protection' for state constitutional torts, local governmental immunity does not provide any immunity for state constitutional torts."
Pugh said in 2017 she didn't need more control over the department. But on Thursday, her spokesman James Bentley said she reacted positively to news of Branch’s legislation.
“Mayor Pugh is reviewing the legislation, but believes this would be a good thing as long as it doesn’t fiscally impact the city,” Bentley said in an email.
The legislation has the support of City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, who said he wants city police to follow the laws passed by the council.
“We don’t want to run the Police Department, but we want them to adhere to the laws we put in,” Young said. “I want most police officers to live in the city, especially if they have high rank.”
City Councilman Brandon Scott, who is chairman of the council’s public safety committee, said he was encouraged that Branch has “shown leadership to do something that the mayor and the city solicitor purposefully disrupted in 2017.”
City Solicitor Andre Davis declined to comment Thursday.
“This was never about the city having more risk to liability from lawsuits,” Scott said. “The state doesn’t pay out a dime when the city Police Department is sued. I hope the mayor and city solicitor have come to terms that in order for Baltimore’s Police Department to be truly reformed, it, like every other police department in the country, has to be locally controlled.”
City Councilman Ryan Dorsey, who is vice chairman of the public safety committee, agreed, and said it’s unrealistic to expect the General Assembly in Annapolis to properly oversee Baltimore’s police.
“The level of corruption within Baltimore city police is unparalleled,” Dorsey said. “You would be dreaming to think it can be sufficiently overseen by a body that convenes for three months out of the year. No average citizen of Baltimore thinks of the Police Department and then thinks their representatives in Annapolis are the ones to go with their concerns.”
State Del. Nic Kipke, an Anne Arundel Republican who is the House minority leader, said he didn't foresee opposition from the GOP. He said most people outside of Baltimore assume the Police Department already is entirely a city agency.
"I can't imagine why anybody would oppose fixing this," Kipke said. "The Republicans have had bills over the years to give lots of things back to the city, such as the city jail."
The state also operates the Baltimore jail.
A hearing on Branch’s bill has yet to be scheduled.