Last summer, following the release of the Department of Justice's report on the Baltimore Police Department, there were many who supported the need for substantive reform. Almost no policy or function of the BPD was without someone championing a way to change it. However, while no one was surprised that the report showed deep-rooted issues in the BPD around race — and the unfair treatment of black Baltimoreans, in particular — there was an item that surprised many.
When discussing who would perform any necessary legislative changes for needed reforms, citizens were shocked to learn that it would be their state level elected officials. For many Baltimoreans, the fact that their police department was not directly and legally accountable to their mayor and City Council was mind-blowing. Why couldn't the Baltimore City Council pass laws that apply to its own police department? How could the Baltimore Police Department not be a city agency? What sense did that make, and how could it be changed?
This was not news to those of us in elected office; we have lived with this reality our entire political lives. Many others came to learn, however, that the Baltimore Police Department has been under state control for over 150 years, since 1860. Sadly, it has taken the Baltimore uprising of 2015 for us to return this issue to an engaged public conversation.
Since the release of the DOJ report, many of Baltimore's various interest groups, clergy, politicians and individual citizens have called for local control of the police department. And many were heartened to see that the consent decree between the DOJ and city requires the establishment of a Community Oversight Task Force to recommend system reforms. But there is one reform we don't need to study to know it's a good idea: Baltimore should have control of its own police force. No other local jurisdiction in Maryland has to make the trek to Annapolis in order to make changes to how its police department works through legislation. Why should Baltimore, the jurisdiction that is clearly most in need of changes to law enforcement policy, be at the mercy of the Maryland General Assembly's 90-day session for change?
In the last two years, there are several examples that highlight the insanity of the Baltimore Police Department being a state agency. In Oct. of 2015, following the appointment of Kevin Davis as police commissioner, the Baltimore City Council Passed Resolution #15-027R which requested the General Assembly pass legislation removing a provision that required the contracts of police commissioners to be six years in length. Six months later the General Assembly passed, and the governor approved, House Bill 384 and Senate Bill 368 removing the provision. Currently, the General Assembly is debating House Bill 9 and Senate Bill 112, which would require the Baltimore Police Department to redistrict its boundaries following each census. These efforts too are being done at the request of the City Council, which first passed City Council Resolution #16-0314R asking that the General Assembly pass such legislation. No other local jurisdiction's legislative body has to go to their state partners to make such changes. Wouldn't it make more sense and be a lot more practical for the City Council members, who have to vote on the department's budget, to have the ability to pass these laws?
Will our mayor and police commissioner react positively to the City Council having local legislative control? Maybe. Maybe not. Will making the Baltimore Police Department a city agency provide the opportunity for better oversight and accountability? Yes. Will moving control of the Baltimore Police Department to the city disrupt political norms? Yes, and that's exactly what we need. In a post Freddie Gray Baltimore, challenging the status quo to make a better Baltimore for all should be the new normal. Dear Maryland General Assembly, the Civil War is over, and the North won. It's time to give Baltimore its police department back. House Bill 1504 would do just that, and it should pass. Its time has come.
Brandon M. Scott is a Baltimore City councilman and the chair of the council's Public Safety Committee; his email is Brandon.Scott@baltimorecity.gov. Del. Curt Anderson is chair of the Baltimore City House Delegation; his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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