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What would it look like for Baltimore to control its police force? A local control board is trying to sort that out.

It was a meeting more than 160 years in the making.

Baltimore officials haven’t controlled the city’s police department since 1860. That year, in an era marked by bloody political street fights that left many dead and Baltimore in chaos, state lawmakers seized authority.

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In the ensuing decades, numerous efforts by the city to retake control of the department failed. It took until 1976 for the mayor to regain the authority to select the police commissioner.

Recently, however, as more than a dozen city officials and community members gathered around a virtual meeting table, local control of the Baltimore Police Department looked like an eventuality for the first time in decades.

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State lawmakers last spring overwhelmingly approved legislation allowing the issue to be put to city voters as a proposed charter amendment. It will be up to the city’s local control board, which met Oct. 27 for the first time, to over the next 10 months draft recommendations for that ballot question and amendment.

While that may seem like plenty of time, the group must reach an agreement on what form local control takes.

The city’s charter currently forbids the mayor and the City Council from regulating the agency and leaves decisions about how to run the department largely to the commissioner, who the mayor can hire and fire.

The board’s choices could determine which city leaders control decisions about disciplining officers and policies going forward, such as whether officers have to live in the city. It could decide what powers go to the police commissioner, mayor or City Council.

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“This matters,” Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott told the 18-member group. The mayor picked six community representatives for the board and led the initial meeting, but pledged to relinquish control to a chair whom board members elect at an upcoming meeting.

Among the members are the city solicitor, Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement and the city’s chief equity officer. Also included are representatives from the state Senate and House of Delegates, as well as officials from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Fraternal Order of Police union and the No Boundaries Coalition, a community group that works in West Baltimore neighborhoods such as Upton and Reservoir Hill.

The group must draft a report on its findings, and the city law department will then craft a ballot question and charter amendment based on its recommendations. The question and amendment will head to the City Council, and if approved, the question would appear on the Nov. 8, 2022 ballot. If voters ratify the charter change, the city could take control of the police department as early as Jan. 1, 2023.

“Think about, ‘What do you want to see accomplished by this board?’” Scott directed the group. Are there critical issues that must be addressed, he asked. Who would it be helpful to hear from?

Board members are hopeful that officials in St. Louis may be a resource. In 2013, Missouri legislators returned control of the St. Louis Police Department to the city for the first time since the Civil War era.

Democratic state Sen. Cory McCray of Baltimore, a member of the local control board and one of the sponsors of the Maryland legislation this year, said he’d like to hear from elected officials in St. Louis, but also from people who were “on the ground” and responsible for implementing the details there.

“What did they benefit from, and what were the struggles?” he asked.

McCray said he foresees the Baltimore City Council taking over many responsibilities that fall to the Maryland General Assembly, as the police department is currently considered a state agency. For example, while the mayor selects the police commissioner (with the City Council’s confirmation) and the City Council can cut the department’s budget, the legislature sets the boundaries of police districts. Residency requirements for officers and take-home vehicle policies have also been outside the city’s authority, McCray said.

Last year, an effort by Democratic Councilman Kristerfer Burnett to ban the use of facial recognition technology in Baltimore was hampered by concerns that it would affect the police department. As that was beyond the council’s control, it settled this year for a moratorium on the use of the technology by others in the city.

“There’s a slew of issues, and I’m sure the council would take some level of oversight,” McCray said.

Democratic Council President Nick Mosby is a member of the board and has appointed staffer Nikki Thompson as his designee. He pointed to a delay in Baltimore officers wearing body cameras as illustrating the need for local control.

In 2014, the City Council passed a bill requiring officers to be outfitted with the devices. Then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, a Democrat, vetoed it, believing the council didn’t have the authority to impose the requirement. Officers didn’t start wearing cameras until 2016, when advocates pushed for the devices after Freddie Gray died the previous year from injuries sustained while in custody.

“Freddie Gray is killed, and we don’t have any [police] video footage,” Mosby said. “That one example really slams in the face of Baltimore City and its very unique concerns around crime.”

Baltimore’s political, civic and law enforcement leaders have for decades struggled to curtail violence in the city. Homicides surged following Gray’s 2015 death, and the rate has barely abated since. The city has topped 300 homicides for the last six consecutive years and is on pace to hit that grim bench mark again in 2021.

Mosby said he’s not set on what structure local control should take, as more work and discussion need to take place. He said he is interested in the intersection of local control and pensions paid to officers convicted of crimes, particularly felonies. The eventual charter amendment may not directly address such an issue, but he said there’s a connection and an opportunity.

“When you violate the trust of the city, to maim and hurt residents of the city, the idea that the city is still paying out pensions to you — I know I feel very strongly about that,” Mosby said.

Board member Ray Kelly, executive director of Citizens Policing Project, said his priority will be strengthening the community’s role in overseeing law enforcement. The state’s repeal of a Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights earlier this year, which governed how officers are disciplined, creates an opportunity to revamp that process, Kelly said.

“There’s an opportunity to actually build a model that’s accountable to people,” he said.

Baltimore has a civilian review board, but Kelly called it “toothless.” It hears complaints of excessive force, allegations of false arrests and other issues and makes recommendations to the police commissioner. However, the commissioner isn’t required to follow those recommendations. The board has also been plagued by vacancies.

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“We can better hold our local elected officials accountable for what happened rather than hearing, ‘That’s something we need to take up in Annapolis,’” Kelly said.

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Local control will have its limits. Baltimore remains under the authority of a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice. The city entered into the decree in 2017 following an investigation that found police repeatedly violated the civil rights of citizens. The agreement requires the city to implement reforms and report regularly to a federal judge and an independent monitoring team.

Scott has said he believes local control will help the city fulfill the requirements of the decree by improving policing.

Other members of the board said the unique nature of the decree will have to be considered as discussions get underway, particularly as comparisons are drawn to the process of regaining control in St. Louis, which does not have such a decree.

Representatives for the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents Baltimore’s officers, have raised concerns about whether labor protections currently guaranteed by state law would be maintained under local control. Sgt. Robert Cherry, the FOP’s representative on the local control board, said his priority is to make sure the union’s collective bargaining rights are preserved.

To accomplish that, Cherry said he would be more comfortable placing power in the mayor, who is elected citywide, than council members, who are elected by voters in their districts. Cherry and other FOP leaders have squared off in the past against several council members who criticized police and the department’s funding.

Giving the City Council too much power could jeopardize the fight against crime, Cherry said.

“My concern is some of the smaller collective bargaining issues: promotions, discipline, transfer of personnel, creation of police districts. All of the things that become very, very political at certain moments,” he said. “I’m worried about Council becoming overly concerned about issues because they now have the power.”

“Local control isn’t just sound bites about transparency and making sure it’s equitable,” he continued. “That all sounds good. But ultimately, we want a department that works. We need to recruit the best and the brightest in the state. We should be able to maintain them.”

Who sits on the board?

Mayor’s Office: Mayor Brandon Scott

State Senate: Cory McCray

House of Delegates: Stephanie Smith

Police Commissioner: Michael Harrison; designee Andy Smullian

Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement: Shantay Jackson

Chief Equity Officer: Dana Moore

City Council President: Nick Mosby; designee Nikki Thompson

City Solicitor: Jim Shea

Civilian Review Board: Tyler Salley

Community Member: Mark Washington

Community Member: Ray Kelly

Community Member: Caylin Young

Fraternal Order of Police: Robert Cherry

Vanguard Justice Society: Lisa Robinson

No Boundaries Coalition: Ashiah Parker

NAACP Legal Defense Fund: Tré Murphy

CASA: Lydia Walther-Rodriguez

Citizens Advisory Commission for Public Safety (ex officio): Tyler Adamson

When do they meet?

The board members meet next on Monday at 5:30 p.m. The virtual meetings are public and a link to participate is available at https://mayor.baltimorecity.gov/bc/boards (click on “Local Control Advisory Board”).

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