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Bill to ask Baltimore voters to decide local control of city police department advances in Maryland legislature

Baltimore politicians have reached an agreement on state legislation that would let city voters decide whether Baltimore should take full control of its police department for the first time in more than 160 years.

The proposal, which would put the issue of local control to Baltimore voters in either 2022 or 2024, enjoys widespread support among state lawmakers in Annapolis and sailed unanimously through the Maryland Senate.

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But it stalled in the House of Delegates amid disagreements among city politicians over how to structure the transition, with the Baltimore City Council at odds with Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration over a proposed advisory board that would steer the process.

Those differences apparently have been hammered out. The city House delegation unanimously signed off on a compromise Monday afternoon, putting the legislation back on track for likely passage by the General Assembly this session.

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Baltimore is the only jurisdiction in Maryland where the local police department or sheriff’s office is officially a state agency. The General Assembly seized control of the Baltimore Police Department in 1860 after years of widespread and deadly political violence in the city.

The City Council controls the police department’s budget. And in 1976, the state gave the power to appoint the police commissioner — a power held for decades by the governor — back to the mayor. But the department’s status as state agency limits the city’s power over the agency.

The 17-member advisory board proposed in the legislation would include the mayor, the city solicitor, the police commissioner, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, the city’s chief equity officer and the City Council president, currently Nick Mosby, a Democrat. Each of those board members can designate someone to fill their seat.

Scott also would appoint six community members, including three “with experience in criminal justice, police reform or community policing.” Under the compromise, the mayor’s six community nominees would need confirmation by the City Council.

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The change would “provide some valuable input from the City Council in the process,” Del. Melissa Wells, the bill’s sponsor in the House, told her colleagues Monday.

Both Sen. Cory McCray, the sponsor of a twin version of the bill in the Senate and the chair of the Baltimore City Senate Delegation, and Natasha Mehu, the Scott administration’s lobbyist in Annapolis, likewise said last week that all parties are now on board.

Also on the advisory board would be one representative each from Baltimore City Lodge #3 Fraternal Order of Police, the city’s union for officers, and the Vanguard Justice Society, an organization of Black officers. The remaining three seats would be filled by one choice each by the Civilian Review Board of Baltimore City, the state Senate president, currently Sen. Bill Ferguson of Baltimore, and the speaker of the House of Delegates, currently Del. Adrienne A. Jones of Baltimore County.

Another amendment to the bill adds language that says state lawmakers have no intention of stripping collective bargaining rights from Baltimore police officers in the process. It appears aimed at concerns from the FOP about whether some labor protections enshrined in state law — including collective bargaining rights for city police, arbitration rules for pay disputes and other provisions — would carry over into local control.

Among the key tasks of the advisory board would be drafting the charter amendment for city voters to consider. The language could have major implications for how the department is regulated in the future because, for instance, Section 27 of the charter broadly prohibits the mayor and the council from directly regulating the agency beyond hiring, confirming or firing the commissioner.

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