In Baltimore, a Laboratory for Failed Police Reform, Defund Makes Sense

Last month at Baltimore City’s annual Taxpayer’s Night event, where residents show up and express their excitement—and more often anger—about the city’s proposed budget, nearly 80 Baltimoreans got on the (virtual) microphone and told Mayor Brandon Scott that the 2022 budget’s proposed $28 million increase to the Baltimore Police Department’s already massive budget was unacceptable.

Those who spoke up at Taxpayer’s Night were surprisingly diverse, coming from neighborhoods such as Upton and Park Heights—some of the least safe and most divested communities in the majority Black city—as well as Hampden, a “quirky,” 88% white tourist spot known for its John Waters-influenced HonFest, and Patterson Park, where many of the city’s medical professionals working at nearby Johns Hopkins Hospital put down roots. This call to “defund” countered some of the most frequent criticisms of the defund movement: That it is a minority opinion made louder by, say, Black radicals and white anarchists disconnected from the daily fears “regular” residents face in a city that regularly reaches 300-plus homicides.

The reason for this mass call to defund BPD is twofold.

First, the group Organizing Black has worked hard to spread the word to residents that money continues to be spent—or, they argue, wasted—on policing in Baltimore. According to Organizing Black, the city spends more than $900 per person on policing. For every dollar spent on policing, 50 cents is spent on public schools, 20 cents on public housing, 12 cents on homeless services, 11 cents on recreation and parks, and 1 cent on mental health services. As the police budget grows each year, homicides and nonfatal shootings increase as well. Baltimore City, with a population of only 600,000, recently surpassed 100 homicides for this year, before New York City, a city of almost 9 million, reached 100 homicides.

Second, Baltimore has tried just about everything other than defunding its police. The majority Black city is something of a laboratory for police reform. The ACLU sued the city twice for its unconstitutional policing, compelling a shift away from “zero tolerance” policies. The department has had 10 commissioners since 2000. And in 2015, in response to the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, Baltimoreans even rioted—a loud and clear call that “enough is enough.” Following Gray’s death and the Baltimore Uprising, the Department of Justice performed a civil rights investigation into the department and in 2016, found egregious civil rights violations. Police corruption, however, continued—a massive police scandal involving Baltimore cops dealing drugs, stealing cash, and routinely violating residents’ rights was exposed in 2017.

As a result of the 2016 civil rights investigation, the city was put under and remains under a federal consent decree, which specifically demands more spending for police (in particular on equipment and other technology). Judge James Bredar, who oversees the consent decree, has commented that until these reforms are established, defunding cannot happen. For activists and many residents, this is the crux of the problem: Baltimore City must go through the motions of another round of complicated and costly federally-mandated reforms to see if they work before it can embrace defunding the police.

In 2020, Baltimore’s City Council voted to defund the police department by $22 million, though BPD will recoup that money if this year’s budget goes through. It feels like a slap in the face to many as the country seems set to go through another reckoning with police violence.

Scott, who was welcomed into office by many because of his connections to the city’s Black working class, his understanding of the grassroots, and his progressive bonafides, is being roundly criticized for increasing the police budget. And yet this week, Maryland’s Republican Governor Larry Hogan criticized Baltimore officials, including Scott, for the city’s violence, even claiming—incorrectly—that Scott intends to “defund the police.” Clearly, the proposed budget says differently. Battleground Baltimore’s Brandon Soderberg reached out to Hogan’s spokesperson Mike Ricci for clarity on what the governor meant when he said Scott wants to defund the police, but has not received a response.

Something Scott did do this week, however, is introduce a plan to relieve some the burdens put on police in Baltimore, as the city has defunded many other services that aren’t police. The mayor has introduced a pilot program to divert 911 calls that do not need to be handled by police (and many say absolutely should not be handled by police) to mental health professionals instead. According to Scott, there are nearly 13,000 911 calls related to behavioral health issues in Baltimore each year.

“Approximately 13,000 calls come into our 9-1-1 system each year for people in crisis. Baltimore is home to world-class medical institutions, and we have an opportunity to deliver premier clinical care and supportive services for our residents experiencing behavioral health and substance use crises,” Scott said in a statement. “The citywide pilot program my administration will launch this summer will allow our police officers to spend more time focusing on violence.”

Councilperson Mark Conway, chair of the Public Safety and Government Operations Committee, also released a statement.

“I am encouraged by this pilot program, which I hope will better connect people experiencing behavioral health crises to appropriate resources,” Conway said. “It is unreasonable to expect police officers to act as psychologists, social workers, and substance abuse professionals when responding to a person experiencing a crisis. Baltimoreans in distress will soon be able to expect trained behavioral health professionals to show up at their door to help.”


Some Residents Spared From Tax Sales Amid Pandemic

On Monday, May 3, Mayor Brandon Scott announced he would be removing 2,500 owner-occupied properties from the much larger list of homes that are on the tax sale list due to their owners not paying taxes and fees—something that became much more difficult to do during the pandemic. 

This was one of a number of recommendations from housing advocates for preventing people from losing their homes. Back in March, Scott assured Baltimoreans he would do all that he could “to make sure no one loses their home to tax sale in the midst of this pandemic.” 

Residents expected a policy change or some kind of announcement on Friday Apr. 30, which meant many who were afraid of losing their homes spent the weekend with no additional information about whether or not their properties would remain on the list or if the tax sale might possibly be delayed altogether. The sale begins on May 17, and if Scott does not make additional changes, would still include around 3,500 properties. Many who were in fear of losing their homes to the tax sale have spent the past month or so advocating for a pause on the tax sale while also attempting in any way they could to scrape up money to pay past due bills.


Controversial Security Deposit Bill Remains For Now

Meanwhile, many tenants’ rights activists are encouraging Mayor Scott to veto the so-called Security Deposit Alternative Bill, a bill that passed last month that would enable renters to purchase what is being called “rental security insurance” but is essentially a surety bond that would lock renters into paying a nonrefundable fee—not to the city or to one’s landlord, but to Rhino, a company that has promoted similar bills across the country. 

Battleground Baltimore has covered the bill in past installments, and we spoke to an activist who last month helped drop banners around City Hall calling attention to the myriad problems with this bill. More and more local groups have announced their opposition to “rental security insurance” because of the terrible situation it creates for renters. The Public Justice Center sent a letter to Scott on Monday, May 3, opposing the bill. The letter begins by telling the mayor, “we’ve been had”—reflecting the language grassroots activists have used, calling the bill “a scam”—and later explains how this reduces tenants’ abilities to challenge bad landlords.

“In Baltimore where 50% of the housing stock is substandard, renters often withheld their rent because the landlord has refused to make repairs to conditions that threaten life, health, or safety. Normally, the landlord would file a claim for failure to pay rent and the tenant could defend against the claim under habitability-oriented laws such as rent escrow,” the letter reads. “With Rhino’s surety bond, however, the landlord files a claim against the bond and leaves Rhino to collect outside of housing court processes that provide for rent escrow—or any other defense. This is because Rhino’s form contract…states that the tenant agrees to “pay [Rhino] the amount of the claim up to the Bond Coverage Amount.”

Journalist Rachel Cohen published an extensive piece on Rhino and its bills at the Intercept this week.


Progressive PAC Challenges Centrist Democrats in Maryland

The “big tent” nature of the Democratic Party means that the  issues often pushed by left-leaning leaders, issues like housing, healthcare, and police accountability, can be watered down in the spirit of compromise with more conservative members of the party. 

Progressive Democrats have often reported feeling like they themselves have been marginalized, along with the community members they represent. Now, the organizers behind New Era PAC are trying to give extra support—financially and otherwise—to these lawmakers so that they can stay in office and keep fighting for progressive issues. They held an online kick-off event last Saturday.

Host of the kick-off Franca Muller Paz, who has been integral to the Baltimore Teachers Union and ran an unsuccessful Green party campaign to unseat District 12 City Councilmember Robert Stokes, said the goal of the group was to fight for “radical, progressive change in Maryland.” 

Kristy Fogle, founder of the Maryland Progressive Healthcare Coalition, pointed to the fact that access to money and power is what stands behind potentially life-altering legislation that would aid Maryland’s most vulnerable populations.

“As a health care provider and a health justice activist who has been fighting in the trenches on Medicare for All on the state and national levels I cannot express to you how important it is to us as progressives to band together like this and build power electorally,” she said. “We are in one of the throes of the worst healthcare crisis that our nation has ever faced and yet we have been unable to adapt a universal single payer system. Why? Because to a large extent, our government has been bought and paid for by powerful entities who stand to massively profit from the pain and suffering of communities of color, the poor, and pretty much everybody except the richest 1%.”


Worker Co-ops vs. Covid

The deadly COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated all of the existing inequities in our society. From education, to healthcare, to housing—the poorest and most vulnerable of us suffered the most and were in the most danger. There’s no one silver bullet to fix these deep seated problems. The way forward, it seems, is to rethink everything. Co-ops are one way that some businesses are moving away from a top-down organizational model, one that takes agency away from workers, toward a more shared and communal experience. 

The Real News’ Jaisal Noor has been focused on the ways co-ops here in Baltimore and elsewhere provide better alternatives for workers. The six-part series was funded by a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network.

The first piece, on local ice cream co-op Taharka Brothers, was released yesterday. 

On May 13, The Real News Network will air a special report on worker co-ops and the COVID-19 pandemic, followed by a live Q&A with Managing Editor Lisa Snowden-McCray. Viewers will hear from worker-owners from Taharka Brothers, Joe Squared Pizza, and more. Click here to register for the event. 


Elsewhere:

Black students call for University support amid police violence, The Johns Hopkins Newsletter.

Advocates welcome tax sale relief, but say it’s late and not enough, Baltimore Brew.

Red Emma’s move is seen as a boost for Greenmount Avenue and Waverly, Baltimore Brew.

Startup Alternative To Rental Security Deposits Gets Legal Backing in Baltimore, The Intercept.

Maryland NORML Files Complaint Against Culta; Calls For License Removal, The Outlaw Report.

Lisa Snowden-McCray

Managing Editor and Baltimore Editor

Lisa Snowden-McCray has been working in news for over 15 years. She specializes in reporting on race, policing, and Baltimore City. She is also the editor of Baltimore Beat, a nonprofit news outlet in Baltimore City.

 
lisa@therealnews.com
 
@lisamccray