Earlier this week, Gov. Larry Hogan went down to Ocean City, Maryland, and told a room full of law enforcement attending the Maryland Chiefs of Police and Maryland Sheriffs’ Associations Professional Development Conference how unfairly they’re being treated these days.
“Our state and our nation owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to all of you and to all of the brave, proud members of the Thin Blue Line,” Hogan said. “I want each and everyone of you to know—especially in today’s environment when, far too often, our law enforcement officers are unfairly criticized and don’t get the appreciation and the recognition that they deserve—that you will continue to have the full support of your governor.”
The same day Hogan said all of that, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of two police officers (one who shot a man in the back with a beanbag round and another who killed a man wielding a hammer), upholding the controversial “qualified immunity” legal principle. Ocean City, where Hogan spoke, made national news over the summer when the town’s police officers were recorded in two different incidents, brutalizing Black teens who were violating a vaping ordinance.
Hogan’s comments followed up his Oct. 15 press conference in which the governor—who has been floated as a 2024 presidential candidate—announced what he called “refund the police.” The initiative would provide an additional $150 million to Maryland law enforcement as well as neighborhood safety grants, victims services, and money for Marylanders who provide tips that lead to arrests.
“The reality is that our police are underfunded and under attack,” Hogan said last week. “To reverse the tide of rising crime, we need to stop demonizing and sabotaging the dedicated men and women who risk their lives every single day to keep the rest of us safe. We cannot defund the police, we need to refund the police.”
‘Refund The Police‘
“Refund the police” is a response to “defund the police,” the nascent movement that demands police funding be significantly reduced in order to allocate funding for less carceral and more effective approaches to public safety (and for some advocates, it is also a hopeful first step towards police abolition). Since George Floyd’s murder by police in 2020, talk of “defund” has grown, and with it an intentional misrepresentation of what defund means and how much departments have actually been defunded.
This disinformation campaign has been assisted by mainstream news media willing to repeat unsubstantiated (and sometimes impossible) claims about the effects of defunding the police. At the same time, police are talking up concerns about a “crime wave,” which does include a significant homicide spike in 2020 (though one that falls far below ’80s and ’90s numbers), to secure higher budgets. The news too has followed with “crime spike” stories, which have noted rising homicides but are also apt to indulge easily disprovable stories about “organized shoplifting rings.” Civil rights lawyer Alec Karakatsanis critiqued a recent New York Times piece titled, “A year after ‘defund’ police department get their money back,” tweeting, “The NYT published another dangerous piece of copaganda, filled with misrepresentations and strategic omissions, all to confuse the public into normalizing and supporting record human caging budgets.”
After Hogan’s “refund the police” speech, his director of communications Mike Ricci took to Twitter to suggest Montgomery County and Prince George’s County were two examples where police were “defunded.” But that isn’t entirely accurate. There was a proposed reduction of the police budget in Montgomery County, but ultimately, after calculating scheduled police pay increases, the police budget grew by $1.6 million. In Prince George’s County, the police department budget was reduced by $12.6 million, though that’s just 3.6% less than the department had last year. The PG County police budget for 2022 is nearly $342 million.
The suggestion that the thin blue line that keeps society from submitting to chaos depends on less than 4% of a police department’s budget is hard to believe.
Baltimore Police have not been ‘defunded’
Police funding has not been reduced in Baltimore City. In 2020, the city council removed $22 million from the police budget, but in June of this year, council unanimously approved a $28 million increase to the police budget.
Last month, it was also decided that the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) would receive $6.5 million from revenue that was generated by red light and speeding cameras over the past year. Something similar happened last year when $2 million allotted for the city’s free bus system was instead used to further fund the police.
The use of that revenue to fund more police moved Jed Weeks of the advocacy group Bikemore, to speak out against the decision: “We can’t accept the continued theft of desperately needed transportation dollars by the Baltimore City Police Department,” Weeks said.
Along with Baltimore finding new ways to fund the police by reallocating other funding, the city has long been a laboratory for surveillance—all framed as necessary to help police stop out-of-control crime. That surveillance has included a privately-funded surveillance plane, undisclosed Stringray phone trackers, the specious ShotSpotter technology, and the vast network of Citiwatch cameras throughout Baltimore that are monitored by the police.
Meanwhile, Johns Hopkins University plans to assist the police by creating their own armed police force, and residents are being encouraged by one councilperson to help the police do their jobs in exchange for cash.
Councilperson Isaac “Yitzy” Schliefer recently introduced a bill that he argues will help more residents come forward and provide information to the police. The bill increases the amount of money a resident receives if their tip leads to an arrest.
“Detectives are spread very thin and when tips come forward it helps them solve these crimes a lot quicker which helps bring closure to the families and communities of these victims,” Schliefer said during an Oct. 19 city council meeting. “If detectives can solve their crimes and their caseload quicker it also helps reduce the overtime that they have to spend in solving these crimes.”
This year so far, BPD’s clearance rate for homicides is 40.5%. In 2017, according to the police, the clearance rate was 51%. In 2018 it was 43%, in 2019 it was 32%, and in 2020 it was 40%.
The national clearance rate average for homicides is 54.7%.
But even Schliefer, whose bill has been praised by Hogan, stressed that police in Baltimore have not been defunded.
“When you say ‘refund the police,’ you’re indicating they were defunded,” he said on local radio the same day Hogan was telling cops how hard they have it. “In Baltimore city, the numbers don’t lie. There have been increases in the police department.”
$555 million a year
The approved Baltimore City police budget is $555 million—$5 million more than last year.
Since 2000, the BPD police budget has increased by $334 million while the number of homicides in the city has remained high. In 2000, there were 261 homicides and the police budget was $231 million. In 2011, when Baltimore endured 196 homicides—the lowest number of homicides in Baltimore since the seventies—the city spent $336 million on police. The police budget in 2011 had actually been reduced: In 2010, the budget was nearly $353,000 and there were 223 homicides.
Since 2015, homicides have significantly increased—more than 300 each year—along with the police budget. In 2020, there were 335 homicides and the police budget was nearly $550 million.
According to Vera Institute, that $550 million made up 26% of the city’s total funds and added up to about $840 per resident.
Organizing Black, an abolitionist group that mobilized Baltimoreans this year to tell the City Council to defund the police (the council did not listen), has stressed that for every dollar the city spends 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.
“The community is saying this ain’t working, and we need to cut the funding to the police department,” Organizing Black’s Rob Ferrell recently told journalist J. Brian Charles.
Baltimore City Councilperson Ryan Dorsey, a frequent critic of the police who nevertheless voted for recent budget increases for BPD, took to Twitter to mock Hogan’s “refund the police” plan.
“I heard refund police and thought it meant giving people a refund on the billions of dollars spent on the lie that police would make anything better,” Dorsey tweeted.