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Baltimore senators skeptical of bill to end state control of city police, calling it 'flawed'

Baltimore senators skeptical of bill to end state control of city police, calling it 'flawed'
The Campaign for Justice, Safety and Jobs holds a news conference to call for passage of a bill aimed at ending state control of the Baltimore Police Department. (Luke Broadwater / The Baltimore Sun)

A bill that aims to give the city of Baltimore full control over its police department breezed through the House of Delegates earlier this month — passing by a vote of 137-0.

But that same legislation is running into tough questioning from Baltimore’s Senate delegation, where at least three lawmakers call the bill “flawed,” worry it will cause city taxpayers to pay out millions more for police misconduct lawsuits, and argue it doesn’t even return full control of the police to the city as its supporters profess.

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“The bill that is before the state Senate right now does not do what it is purported it does,” said Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat. “The bill does not return control to the mayor and City Council, and it would be a disservice to pretend that it does.”

The bill — which changes just a few words in one part of state law— needs to be amended heavily, Ferguson said. Without amendments to other parts of the Public Local Laws of Baltimore, the legislation would leave the police commissioner with powers over the police force that could not be altered by laws the City Council passes, he said.

“The real question is whether the powers of the commissioner should be granted to City Council and the mayor, but that’s not what the bill currently addresses,” Ferguson said. “At the very least, it needs an amendment to do what it intended to do. This is an important issue to get right.”

Baltimore Senators Cory McCray and Antonio Hayes also said they have many questions about the bill, including whether it would open up the city to greater liability for police misconduct lawsuits.

“I’m disappointed that the members of the City Council didn’t have the conversation about digging into how much the city would be on the hook for this bill,” McCray said. “It’s a very important conversation to have when you're talking about a struggling city. This is us doing our due diligence to this piece of legislation.”

A fiscal note on the bill said it could result in a “potential significant increase in Baltimore City expenditures to the extent that the bill affects the city’s ability to be sued for common law and State constitutional torts.”

Concerned about the legislation’s future in the Senate, a group of advocates called a news conference Thursday afternoon to urge passage of the bill.

“We need local control,” said Nicole Hanson-Mundell, the executive director of Out For Justice. “Let us address what’s happening in our city. Give us back that control so we can hold our current police department accountable.”

Hanson-Mundell was joined by representatives from 30 organizations that make up the Campaign for Justice, Safety and Jobs.

“This bill would empower local elected officials to respond rapidly when issues crop up on the ground and implement viable solutions when presented,” the group said in a statement. “Right now, their hands are tied until the General Assembly meets, an hour away in Annapolis. But our city is bleeding every single day. We don’t have the luxury of taking our time when policy reforms and police accountability is so desperately needed!”

At issue is legislation sponsored by Del. Talmadge Branch, a Baltimore Democrat, that aims to end what he views as an anachronism of state law that makes Baltimore the only jurisdiction in Maryland with a police department that is technically a state agency.

Branch, who is the House majority whip, testified before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee this week. He argued the bill would empower the Baltimore City Council to legislate the police department, rather than having its members drive an hour to Annapolis to do so.

“We’re looking to give that control back to them like all major cities have,” Branch said. “The city wants this back. The council wants it back. The mayor wants it back. The solicitor wants it back.”

Branch was joined by City Councilman Brandon Scott, who is chairman of the council’s Public Safety Committee.

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“You should not be dealing with the minutiae of a local government’s operation,” Scott told Senate committee members.

In the 19th century, the Baltimore Police Department was established as a state agency. It is governed by the Public Local Laws of Baltimore, which are enacted by the legislature.

However, revenue from city taxpayers funds the department’s budget, and the mayor hires and fires the police commissioner.

Because of the unique arrangement, the City Council sometimes runs into roadblocks when attempting to make changes to laws that govern city police. For instance, when the City Council attempted in 2014 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.

Former Baltimore City Solictor George Nilson recently wrote an Abell Foundation report raising concerns about Branch's legislation.

Nilson wrote the legislation would permit the City Council to “micromanage [for good or ill] policing in the city of Baltimore;” subject police employees to city — not state — ethics rules; and cause the police department to “lose the current protections which exist under state sovereign immunity, which would likely result in much higher payouts for lawsuits and settlements against the city.”

Similar efforts to return local control of the police department to the city have failed in past years, but Mayor Catherine Pugh expressed support this year for the legislation.

City Solicitor Andre Davis joined her in support, saying that “changing the designation of the [Police] Department from a state agency to a city agency would have minimal effect on those [immunity] protections.”

The Maryland attorney general’s office deferred to Davis, saying he was in the best position to evaluate the bill’s fiscal impact.

Baltimore’s senators have not yet set a date when they will vote on the bill.

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