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Governor could declare state of emergency over Baltimore crime under proposed bill from Republican lawmaker

State Sen. J.B. Jennings talks to reporters in the Maryland Senate chamber on Tuesday about his bill that would allow the governor to declare a state of emergency in cities and counties with high homicide rates. At right is Sen. Stephen Hershey of the Eastern Shore, who is the minority whip.
State Sen. J.B. Jennings talks to reporters in the Maryland Senate chamber on Tuesday about his bill that would allow the governor to declare a state of emergency in cities and counties with high homicide rates. At right is Sen. Stephen Hershey of the Eastern Shore, who is the minority whip. (Pamela Wood)

The Maryland Senate’s top-ranking Republican is making a late push for a bill that would allow the governor to declare a state of emergency in Baltimore due to the high murder rate.

Sen. J.B. Jennings, a Republican who represents Harford and Baltimore counties, said he wants to find a way to help Baltimore with its persistently high crime rates.

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“Baltimore has asked us for help. We’re trying to help. We’re saying: ‘Hey, this is something we can do,’” Jennings said. “Once we get these crime levels back down, we can pull these resources out.”

Sen. Antonio Hayes, who chairs Baltimore’s delegation of senators, dismissed the bill as simply political posturing.

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“It’s just political theater,” Hayes said. “I don’t take it seriously. I don’t think the governor wants that responsibility.”

The bill would allow a governor to declare a state of emergency in a city or county if the homicide rate reaches three per 100,000 residents in a month. With Baltimore’s population of about 600,000, a homicide rate of 18 killings per month would trigger the ability for the governor to declare a state of emergency.

In each of the first two months of 2020, 26 homicides were reported in Baltimore, putting the city above the threshold for a state of emergency under the bill.

The governor would then be authorized to appoint “special prosecutors” to handle criminal cases, and would also be able to send in “resources and personnel” from state agencies, including state police and other law enforcement officers.

Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, hasn’t taken a position on the bill, according to his spokeswoman, Shareese Churchill.

“It is encouraging to see that some legislators are focused on addressing the violent crime crisis in Baltimore City, which the governor has repeatedly said is the most urgent issue facing our state," Churchill said in a statement. “The governor will consider any legislation that comes to his desk.”

The governor and the legislature have tangled in recent weeks over the fate of legislation that aims to reduce the crime in Baltimore, with Hogan urging lawmakers to act on the “out of control” crime in the city. Some of the governor’s key proposals have not moved forward because they include mandatory minimum sentences for crimes, which Democratic leaders have said they oppose.

Some elements of Hogan’s bills are moving forward as part of other bills, such as a requirement for judges’ sentences to be compiled in a report and tougher maximum penalties for witness intimidation.

Democratic lawmakers also have criticized the governor for not taking steps that he could take on his own, such as hiring more parole and probation officers, hiring more correctional officers and improving services for people leaving prison so they are less likely to re-offend.

Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, said Jennings’ bill on the state of emergency would get due consideration.

“This is a time where we’re all coming together to see if we can figure out ways to address what is a critical problem. we’ve got to have safety across the state and so every idea gets debated," Ferguson told reporters Tuesday. "We’ll be deliberative and take every idea seriously.”

Because the bill was filed late in the 90-day General Assembly session, it first must clear the Senate’s Rules Committee. That committee will decide whether the bill moves forward to a regular committee and a public hearing.

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