On Dec. 22, a few days before Christmas, Baltimore City Comptroller Bill Henry showed up to the (virtual) Board Of Estimates hearing dressed as Santa Claus. There, Henry and the rest of the voting members proceeded to give one last present to the police this year: With little to no discussion, they approved $41 million for the Baltimore Police Department to get new helicopters and police cars.
Meanwhile, the omicron variant of COVID-19 spread, including to many people who have been vaccinated—and some who received a booster. For the people of Baltimore, the only advice from on high was to get tested (which was incredibly difficult) or get vaccinated if you haven’t already. Mayor Brandon Scott announced the city was looking to develop a “vaccine passport” and, during a maddening Dec. 29 virtual event, Scott also noted a new testing center will open up; beyond that, though, the city is waiting on the state for instructions on further actions. Schools will not be going back to virtual learning. The CDC’s latest recommendations, which are the result of government caving to the demands of commerce, will be followed.
Until the omicron surge, Baltimore City had maintained a relatively low infection rate, which was one of Scott’s crowning achievements during a year when he often disappointed voters.
As of press time, according to the Maryland COVID-19 Data Dashboard, the infection rate for COVID-19 in the state is a little over 20%.
This is how 2021 in Baltimore City ends: With another series of stark reminders that Baltimoreans, for the most part, only have each other to rely on. Then again, that’s how most of this year in Baltimore felt. And that feeling was the impetus for former Real News Managing Editor Lisa Snowden establishing Battleground Baltimore’s weekly news roundup. For all of us involved, we wanted Battleground Baltimore to capture the actual stakes of what was happening (and not happening) in the city, and we wanted to always be honest and direct about issues that the city’s powerful would like to obfuscate or repeatedly describe as just “really complicated” until you get sick and tired of their excuses and leave them alone.
This week, Battleground Baltimore is giving all of 2021 the roundup treatment. Here are some of the most important Baltimore news stories from the year…
The Mosbys are under investigation
State’s Attorney for Baltimore City Marilyn Mosby and her husband, City Council President Nick Mosby, are currently under federal investigation related to their taxes. The Mosbys, a couple already caught up in a tangle of conflicts of interest—Nick’s position means he approves his wife’s office’s budget, for example—have spent the year claiming they are being maliciously targeted and wrongfully attacked (Marilyn for being “too progressive” and Nick for, well, who knows why). They have even begun fundraising for their legal defense, a move that opens them up to even more conflicts of interest. Marilyn Mosby has also taken to attacking Isabel Cumming, the inspector general whose job it is to investigate possible fraud and misconduct.
At this point, with the city being largely silent on the issue, we are supposed to simply trust that the Mosbys will not make any political decisions based on who does or doesn’t donate to their legal defense.
Housing advocates partially defeat Nick Mosby
Two housing policies introduced by Nick Mosby this year were immediately questioned by housing advocates for efficacy, but also because it didn’t seem like said policies would serve Baltimore’s residents as well as they would serve venture capitalists and developers.
In the spring, Mosby introduced a bill that was framed as providing assistance for residents who could not pay the security deposits on their rented properties. But the policy, loudly backed by a New York-based venture capital group called Rhino, would have sucked residents into what amounted to a predatory loan scheme. The bill was defeated by housing advocates such as Baltimore Renters United and was a stunning example of people in Baltimore mobilizing and making change.
More recently, Mosby has reintroduced the dollar homes program, which would allow Baltimoreans to purchase and own a vacant home in the city for just $1 if they repair it. Even though it sounds good on paper, housing advocates have warned that the bill would primarily help developers, not residents who largely lack the capital (and access to capital) to pay for such improvements.
Battleground Baltimore’s Jaisal Noor discussed the dollar homes program in this explainer and in this follow-up report on a recent hearing regarding the dollar homes program, during which Mosby was light on specifics about how the program would actually work.
City Council President Nick Mosby wants to resurrect a decades-old program, but housing advocates warn it won’t solve Baltimore’s housing crisis and instead helps out developers.
Marilyn Mosby and the limits of the ‘progressive’ prosecutor
When she wasn’t busy mounting a public defense for herself and her husband, Marilyn Mosby spent the year splitting the difference between the sound, “progressive” policy she is nationally known for and the vindictive, carceral approaches to prisoners her office is locally known for—approaches that cannot possibly be perceived as “progressive” and can only be described as cruel.
Earlier this year (and a few days after it was revealed she was under federal investigation), Mosby made a headline-grabbing decision to stop prosecuting low-level offenses, effectively making permanent a policy her office previously said would be temporary amid COVID-19. The policy stops prosecution of offenses such as drug possession, trespassing, sex work, rogue vagabond charges, and more. This policy, Mosby argued, reduces police interaction and will not increase crime. Indeed, since the policy was first introduced, crime has not increased. Moreover, although the policy is imperfect—people seem confused about it because Mosby’s office has still found ways to charge for drugs—its impact and message are encouraging.
In 2020, when the policy went into effect temporarily, there were 1,348 drug arrests. In 2019 that number was 3,770. That means significantly fewer people in jail.
Meanwhile, Mosby’s approach to those already incarcerated has been unkind, to say the least. As Baltimore Courtwatch has shown week in and week out, her prosecutors aggressively argue in support of holding people without bail, even amid successive COVID-19 waves. The office has significantly slowed down its policy of reducing incarceration during the pandemic by letting people out. Mosby has also continued playing games by not releasing (as she said she would) a full list of problem cops to defense attorneys.
And then there is Keith Davis Jr., a man who was shot by police in 2015, later charged with a murder, and then tried four times for that murder, resulting each time in Davis being granted a new trial either because of a hung jury or an overturned verdict. Davis’ saga is rife with police and prosecutorial misconduct, which has been best detailed in Ron Cassie’s Baltimore Magazine story, “The Many Trials of Keith Davis Jr.”
In May 2022, just one month before the primary election for Baltimore City State’s Attorney, Davis goes to trial for a fifth time for the same murder.
Another year with 300-plus homicides, more money for police
As of press time, there have been 335 murders in Baltimore City. 2021 is the seventh year in a row that Baltimore has surpassed 300 homicides. Additionally, there have been more than 700 nonfatal shootings—“failed murders,” as some cops like to call them—this year. These numbers are not a significant departure from what they have been over the past few years and, more broadly, they reflect trends Battleground Baltimore has observed when looking at decades of crime data for the city.
Over the past 30 years, nonfatal shootings have typically been twice the number of homicides. At the same time, the Baltimore Police Department’s clearance rate for homicides, as well as the number of arrests for murder, has plummeted. For example, in 1990 there were 305 homicides, 345 murder arrests, and a homicide clearance rate of nearly 76%. Currently, the clearance rate sits around 40%. The national average is 54.7%.
The last time the clearance rate reached 70% or higher was 2000, when there were 261 homicides and 239 murder arrests. In 2020, there were 335 homicides, 102 murder arrests, and a clearance rate of 40%.
Even as the very metrics police use show they’re not doing their job effectively, the Baltimore Police Department continues receiving more money and more resources—such as those new helicopters the Board Of Estimates approved last week. Indeed, the Baltimore Police Department received a budget increase of $22 million this year. It was unanimously approved by the City Council, who had voted for modest cuts just one year before. This budget increase, which puts the total police budget over $550 million, was loudly opposed by many Baltimoreans during two Taxpayers’ Night events that were set up so residents could make public comments about the city budget. Residents were mobilized by the group Organizing Black.
“The community is saying this ain’t working, and we need to cut the funding to the police department,” Organizing Black’s Rob Ferrell told journalist J. Brian Charles of The Trace.
The defund demands from residents were ignored. The police budget was increased. Additionally, Baltimore Police scooped up other funding, including $6.5 million in speed camera revenue that was originally allotted for making streets safer for pedestrians and drivers. There is also a grant for $10.5 million from the state of Maryland, all part of Gov. Larry Hogan’s counterfactual “refund the police” initiative.
Hogan, who thinks he is seriously running for president, has spent the year demagoguing Baltimore violence while ignoring increases in violence in other parts of the state, and bullying Baltimore’s elected officials when it comes to crime. He even contrived a photo-op in the Waverly neighborhood to prop up his “refund the police” initiative, angering some of the neighborhood’s small business owners.
Inaction on the overdose crisis
It was also another year with a staggering number of fatal overdoses. Baltimore has always been a heroin city, but the poisoning of the drug supply has meant way more overdoses. Baltimore is again set to surpass 1,000 overdose deaths this year—nearly triple the number of homicides. Since the onset of the pandemic, the push for substantial policy to prevent overdoses has gotten nowhere. In early 2020, before the pandemic shut down much of the city in March, then-City Council President Brandon Scott was advocating for overdose prevention sites—places where people can safely use drugs without fear of arrest. As mayor, Scott has been public about his evolution on this issue, admitting to his own misunderstanding of drug use due to stigma while vocally, if not legislatively, advocating for smarter approaches to drug use and overdose.
Though New York City recently opened two overdose prevention sites, Gov. Larry Hogan has called the very concept of overdose prevention sites “insane.” And in Maryland, the state Senate could not even organize to pass a bill that would decriminalize paraphernalia—including needles and other supplies used to inject drugs—during a December special legislative session.
No substantial legislation to address the overdose crisis passed in 2021. That means the many, many people in Baltimore who use drugs—such as “D,” whom I profiled last month—are left on their own, facing a pandemic that eliminates the possibility of safe gatherings (one is more apt to overdose if they are alone) and an unstable, increasingly lethal drug supply.
Little legislative movement in Maryland over the past two years has left people who use drugs more vulnerable and even less safe.
Baltimore people power
It is hard not to feel pretty hopeless right now. But let’s end by focusing on the rare victories described above, which, of course, mostly began with the people: Baltimoreans organizing and breaking through all of the barriers put in place to stop people from organizing and working together to bring change to the city.
Activists pushed against Mosby’s security deposit insurance bill because it was, in their words, “a scam,” and got that bill killed. Moreover, the city ended up with better housing policy as a result, and that is a victory. When residents from all across the city spoke out and demanded the city “defund the police,” the city did not listen, but their presence was important and a forceful rejoinder to bad-faith claims that “defund” is the position of some bougie white elite that could not possibly come from people in the neighborhoods police prowl the most. It is because of Keith Davis Jr.’s wife Kelly, and a group of police abolitionists supporting her, that Davis’ name has made Mosby’s “progressive prosecutor” platitudes harder to accept.
What else? There are more and more co-ops in Baltimore and they offer up a future vision for workers that’s quite different from the current status quo. Moreover, unionization efforts have been spreading in the city, including at the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Museum.
There is also the ongoing fight by the remaining residents of the Poppleton neighborhood to stop a developer from seizing their homes under eminent domain. Jaisal Noor and I wrote about it a couple of weeks ago.
I’m going to let Sonia Eaddy, one of the residents of Poppleton who is fighting for her home, have the final word this year. The following quote is currently painted on the side of her house: “SAVE OUR BLOCK. Black Neighborhoods Matter. Losing my home is like a death to me. Eminent Domain law is violent.”