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Maryland lawmakers weigh giving Baltimore full local control of police for first time in 160 years

It’s been since the eve of the Civil War that Baltimore held full control of its police department, which the General Assembly wrested from City Hall amid street fighting that saw political candidates and their supporters driven away from the polls by clubs, gunshots and even cannon blasts.

Now, Maryland lawmakers appear likely to let city voters decide whether to put the Baltimore Police Department entirely back under the mayor and City Council.

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Under twin bills introduced by Sen. Cory V. McCray and Del. Melissa R. Wells, both Baltimore Democrats, and pushed by Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott, a city charter amendment would go before Baltimore voters as soon as 2022.

The legislation would also create an advisory committee to draft language for that proposed charter amendment.

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Baltimore is the only jurisdiction in Maryland where the local police department is technically a state agency.

Past efforts to return the Baltimore Police Department to local control, including several bills in recent years, foundered amid questions about the potential fallout for city finances and disagreements within Baltimore’s legislative delegation.

But this year’s push appears to have more momentum and has secured key support. Baltimore’s state senators, some of whom shot down an effort in 2019 by Democratic Del. Talmadge Branch that the House of Delegates passed unanimously, signed off Friday on this year’s proposal at a city Senate delegation meeting.

Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, was among those voicing approval. Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, a Democrat from Baltimore County, included returning the city department to local control in the sweeping criminal justice packages each marked as a priority for this legislative session.

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Advocacy groups are actively campaigning on the measure, and the ACLU of Maryland included it among the policing measures it is pushing this session. Caylin Young, the group’s public policy director, said the Baltimore City Council already holds regular meetings on the police department’s budget and its attempts to reduce crime.

“Now, they’ll have the teeth to hold the department accountable,” Young told Baltimore City delegates Friday at their meeting.

Scott’s support put City Hall firmly behind the measure. He has characterized local control as a crucial step toward reforming the department.

“Local control of BPD is about police accountability, it’s about representative democracy and it’s about racial justice,” Scott told lawmakers in late January, describing it as a priority of his administration and noting that taking back control of the department was part of his mayoral campaign last year.

The city handles the department’s budget, and the mayor holds the power to hire and fire the police commissioner.

But its status as a state agency leaves the council without the authority to regulate the department directly, a factor that played into a power struggle over the implementation of body cameras, for instance. It also forces the police commissioner and city leaders to seek Maryland General Assembly approval for the sorts of internal overhauls — such as redrawing police district maps, which haven’t been updated since the 1950s — that other jurisdictions handle with council actions.

The General Assembly seized control of city police in 1860 following years of bitter, and often bloody, battles between the virulently anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party — which controlled Baltimore and its police force in the 1850s — and the proslavery Democratic Party.

Elections frequently devolved into pitched gunbattles between gangs affiliated with each party, said Matthew Crenson, an emeritus professor of history at the Johns Hopkins University. The 1856 election saw roughly 30 dead.

The police commissioner controlled not only city officers, but also oversaw the polls, Crenson said. When Democrats swept into control of the General Assembly in 1860, they took over the police department in an effort to take the city — and its elections — from the Know-Nothings.

“The Know-Nothings were notorious for their attempts to control their political process and control the polls,” Crenson said.

Since then, city voters rejected local control at least twice — in 1920 and in 1947 — opting to leave the choice of police commissioner in the hands of the governor. The issue has reflected bitter racial divides in Baltimore, with local Black politicians and leaders in the 1960s and 1970s calling for greater local control and conservative white leaders preferring that power remain in Annapolis.

It wasn’t until 1976 that power to appoint the commissioner returned to the mayor. A story in The Baltimore Sun that year noted that legislation passed only after “some unusually frank black-white city delegation vote trading.”

This year, in support of sweeping away the last vestiges of state control, acting City Solicitor Jim Shea has sought to address an issue previously raised by one of his predecessors, George Nilson, among others. It’s the idea that making the department a municipal agency could put Baltimore on the hook for heftier judgments in civil suits against the police.

The U.S. Constitution grants states — but notably not local governments — immunity in court against certain types of claims, especially in federal court, where potential payouts are far higher than in Maryland state court. A fiscal note attached to McCray’s and Wells’ bills warns “the city may be exposed to significantly higher damage awards.”

But Shea has told legislators repeatedly over recent weeks that local control actually won’t make a bit of difference. That’s because, according to Shea, lawyers suing the Baltimore police easily get around sovereign immunity by suing the officers personally — rather than the agency — with the city still having to pay the costs.

Shea also noted that at least two federal judges have questioned in recent decisions whether the Baltimore Police Department’s status as a state agency is a mere technicality, given the local control over both its budget and boss. However, federal appeals courts have not weighed in on that question.

The lone consistent voice dissenting so far in 2021 has been the Baltimore City Lodge #3 Fraternal Order of Police union, which has repeatedly noted that local officials already have significant control over the agency through the commissioner — who the mayor can fire for any reason — and pointed to the warnings about a potential increase to the city’s liability costs.

Another concern among rank-and-file officers is whether 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.

Ferguson, the Senate president, said at the Friday meeting of the city Senate delegation that the bill would alter only the portion of state law concerning state control of the agency. He said it would leave the collective bargaining language in place.

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Baltimore police union leaders said they want to hear that from city officials, too.

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Natasha Mehu, the Scott administration’s lobbyist in Annapolis, said the legislation wouldn’t wipe out the section of the city charter dealing with the police department. She said the advisory committee the bill would set up to draft the charter amendment would look carefully at what needs to be changed and what should be left in place.

“The intent of the bill is for all of those pieces of local law to be considered,” she said.

Robert Cherry, a Baltimore homicide sergeant who heads the city FOP’s legislative committee, said the union might seek to have legislators amend the bill to include a guarantee that the collective bargaining arrangement remain in effect.

Cherry said officers aren’t necessarily opposed to putting the department under full local control. He noted that officers have proved themselves willing to work with local leaders to implement changes, including adopting body cameras and adding civilians to boards that decide discipline.

“The FOP isn’t against local control,” Cherry said. “I think it’s important for the rank and file to know that the mayor has their back and he’s at least going to carry over the collective bargaining agreement.”

Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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