As the Baltimore City Council met to debate the police budget, protesters gathered outside City Hall hoping to make their views clear. In tall, pink letters, they painted DEFUND THE POLICE on a downtown street.
Protesters across the country have made the same call, spurred by the Memorial Day death of George Floyd as a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes.
That’s not what the Council voted to do Monday night in a contentious budget hearing. Rather, it voted to eliminate roughly $22 million in police spending for the upcoming fiscal year — a move that City Council President Brandon Scott says is a signal of what’s to come.
“I am proud to lead a City Council that took the first step to responsibly reduce Baltimore’s budget dependence on policing,” said Scott, who is the Democratic nominee for mayor. “This is just the beginning, and I intend to continue leading this process to redirect our public dollars and reimagine public safety in Baltimore.”
Baltimore routinely spends more than half a billion dollars on its police department, far more than on other agencies. Some argue it’s time to instead redirect a portion of that money toward eliminating the root causes of violence.
The Council intended for the cuts to boost spending elsewhere, including opening recreation centers on Sundays, increasing trauma services and offering black-owned businesses forgivable loans.
Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, who has the sole power to reallocate funds, does not intend to do so. Young’s administration defended its budget proposal, saying the police department needs resources to reform in a city plagued by unrelenting homicides.
The mayor is expected to act on the budget in the coming days, allowing it to take effect July 1.
Even before the protests, the budget was under increased scrutiny because of economic turmoil touched off by the coronavirus pandemic. It had to be rewritten after the city projected $103 million less in revenue for the 2021 fiscal year.
Here is what some of the cuts to the police department may look like in execution.
Cuts to overtime
The cuts would force the police department to spend about $7 million less in overtime costs.
The agency is on track to spend about $40 million on overtime in the current fiscal year, including for officers who responded to the ongoing demonstrations.
Before the Council’s changes to the budget, the department had proposed bringing that spending down to $33 million for the fiscal year that starts in two weeks. The Council cut it further, to about $26 million.
If the department needs more overtime funding during the upcoming budget year, Police Commissioner Michael Harrison would have to come back to the Council for approval.
In a memo to Council members, Harrison outlined how he believes the cuts will stretch the department with regards to managing recruitment, audits and record keeping. For example, a nearly $500,000 cut to overtime for the crime lab will “inhibit the BPD’s ability to collect and process evidence outside of straight time shift hours.”
Harrison said the department is short hundreds of officers that are needed, according to his staffing plan. The plan is based on an analysis approved by a team monitoring Baltimore’s implementation of a federal consent decree to reform the police department.
Scott said the cuts the Council settled on for the overtime budget were “very intentional.”
“These cuts to overtime are not to the patrol bureau or to officers dealing directly with the crime fight,” Scott said.
Eliminating the mounted unit
Getting rid of the mounted unit frees up about $554,000. The savings weren’t larger because the police department had already shifted all the officers assigned to the horse-riding unit to patrol.
Nearly two years ago, the city broke ground on a $2.5 million construction project to stable the horses in Southwest Baltimore. Democratic City Councilman John Bullock lamented that it was nearly complete, but now thrust into flux.
“I look at this as a boon for the neighborhood,” Bullock said, adding that the project was designed to spur positive interactions between the community and the police.
Harrison also said the funding cuts could invoke penalty provisions in the lease for the new stable.
“This is in addition to line items for the medical care and feeding of the horses which will be eliminated with no plan to transition these functions or care for the horses after July 1,” he wrote.
The horses have previously been used for special events and traffic control, but the unit has often come up as a suggested area for cuts. It is the country’s oldest continuously operating horse brigade.
Eliminating the marine unit
The council approved $1.4 million in cuts to the marine unit, eliminating all operating and personnel costs.
Scott said the police and fire departments will have to combine their marine units. He said the cut also opens up the possibility of revenue for the city by selling the police department’s valuable waterfront property in Canton.
“We can do the tough work to combine that into one vessel with the fire boat and move away from both the public safety agencies having a separate one so we are meeting the necessary needs and working in an innovative way,” Scott said.
Harrison said it will take away the department’s ability to do security checks, patrol and respond to calls on the water.
Delay new community intelligence centers
Young and Harrison touted “Community Intelligence Centers” as a powerful approach to fighting crime, modeled after a strategy deployed in Chicago.
The mayor originally hoped to open nine centers in the city. There are currently two.
The centers are district-level operations that use data analysis and technology to intervene and respond to crime. Staff at the centers — which include police, attorneys, analysts and case managers — are supposed to identify at-risk people and help them with housing, drug treatment and job training.
The Council imposed cuts on the budgets of both the police and the office of the state’s attorney, delaying the opening of two centers.
Scott said he wanted to cut the $176,000 from the police budget for these centers because the concept was still being tested and the money was urgently needed elsewhere.
“These things have not been studied for their effect,” Scott said. “You have to study it. And at a time when they are cutting funding to respond to communicable disease, we shouldn’t be giving the BPD new things.”
Eliminating unallocated funding
Not all of the moves made by the Council were actual cuts to the budget.
The council also took steps to eliminate millions in “unallocated” funds, which give agencies flexibility in spending while they await expected grants to arrive.
The action means the police department will have to come to the Council for approval to spend money when grants are received. Scott said that will improve transparency and accountability.
“Cutting ‘unallocated appropriations’ means that BPD will no longer be able to bypass legislative oversight for the way the agency spends state and federal grant dollars,” he said.
Harrison wrote this system could put the department in a tough spot. If the grants are not authorized, the money could be revoked and that could affect the department’s ability to win grants in the future.
“Moreover,” he wrote, “the time through the supplementary appropriation process will shorten the amount of time that we are able to spend down the grant.”