Baltimore Councilman: Holistic Approach Needed to Address Violence and Public Safety
As Baltimore surpasses 300 murders for the second straight year, we bring you the second part of our conversation with Kris Burnett a new progressive councilperson from Baltimore’s 8th district
JAISAL NOOR: As Baltimore passes 300 murders for the second straight year, we bring you the second part of our conversation with new councilman, Kris Burnett. We started by asking him how he plans to balance public safety with reforming the Baltimore City Police Department.
KRISTERFER BURNETT: I’ll start with the public safety question, because I think there’s a misconception that police in themselves can make neighborhoods safer. And so, I was encouraged to see that the Public Safety Committee is now the Public Safety and Health Committee on the Council. Because I think we have to begin to look at public safety and violence as a health issue that is a result of other issues.
So, you know, I mention my priorities being housing, you know, working with young people, jobs. I mean, that is the thing that I believe can end violence. Not that we don’t need police, because we do. I mean, that’s always the struggle with being a progressive legislator — you know, when I canvassed my communities there were several older residents who, their biggest fear wasn’t the police, their fear is the guy selling drugs on the corner. And they wouldn’t even open their door for me, and they know who I was. But, so we got to strike a police where, you know, we are making older residents feel safer, our young people feel safe. I mean, you know, we have bystanders being shot and murdered every day in this city. But I think, you know, more police doesn’t necessarily mean safer neighborhoods.
I think that when we make investments in schools, after-school programs, youth jobs; when we talk about the mental health impact that violence in communities has on our young people who are, frankly, they’re the same ones holding weapons, a lot of them have lost family members and friends to violence. And those are traumatic experiences. So we really have to make investments in mental health resources.
And then the jobs piece is important. I mean, we really have to partner, not only as city government, but partnering with non-profits, with community organizations and advocacy groups, to really help people become workforce ready. Because there’s a skills gap that exists with, you know, folks who may not graduate from high school or may not have, you know, a ton of skills that make them ready for the work that’s available here in the city. We have a lot of health care jobs. We have construction. I mean, you know, we just saw a $600-million TIF go through with the last council for Port Covington — that’s 25 years of construction. I’d like to see a pipeline from the Edmonson Westside Skills Center in my district, to those job sites — and making sure that the people who are working there live in the City of Baltimore and can support their families, then make a livable wage. And so, I think that’s where we get at this public safety question.
As it relates to police reform, I think, you know, of course everyone read the consent decree, and that is something that will be coming down the pipe. And, you know, I look forward to working with the police department to implement those changes. Because at the end of the day, there needs to be accountability. We have to get bad officers off the streets, and they have to be held accountable for their actions. And, you know, and talking to some officers, though, they want that, too. At the end of the day, you know, your officer that is trying to do the right thing doesn’t want a bad officer, either. And, I think, you know, so there is that; that does exist, and now that’s not always the narrative. So I think the ground is ripe for a shift in accountability. And it’s something I know is a priority for me because, you know, if folks don’t — and I’ll go back to the older woman that, you know, lives across the street from me and I talk to — doesn’t feel comfortable opening her door; she also may not feel comfortable calling the police for the same reason that she may not know what’s going to happen when the officer interacts with this young man that she’s afraid of. And I’ve talked to folks that had that concern, as well. So they just don’t call. And so, I think there’s that trust piece that has to be rebuilt.
So when we talk about community policing; when we talk about walking the beats and building relationships — I know this is something that I’ve mentioned to the commissioner in the few opportunities I’ve had to talk to him — that, you know, this is something that has to happen. We have to be—rebuild trust and that comes with an accountability piece, but it also comes with the relationship building piece, so that folks feel comfortable. Because, I mean, police do play a role in keeping our neighborhoods safe. But, as I’ve already said, I mean, this holistic approach to just reinvesting in our communities and our people, I think, is really what’s going to move the needle and make our neighborhoods safer.
JAISAL NOOR: And so there has been a lot of resistance, especially from the FOP, the police union, on a city and statewide level, to structural changes, to accountability. And the FOP is a very strong lobbying force to resist laws and resist changes. You saw the Officer’s Bill of Rights in their campaign against that over the last few legislative sessions in Annapolis. What’s your position on the groups that are going to resist change and resist having increased accountability?
KRISTERFER BURNETT: You know, I hope that changes. I haven’t had a chance to sit down with them over these particular issues. But I will. As you know, it was published yesterday, I’ll be on the Public Safety Committee. So we’ll be on the front lines with implementing these changes. And, you know, I hope there’s a culture shift. If not, I mean, we’re going to have to just kind of duke it out. You know, it’s important that we bring accountability to this city. I mean, you know, I understand as a former union worker, that your job is to protect your workers and put their interests first. But at the end of the day, I hope they see that the interest of their workers is more accountability and a safer workplace, and a workplace where officers aren’t, you know, abusing their power. I mean, that makes their job easier, because it builds trust, so officers don’t have to worry about the violence and the uptick that we’ve seen against officers in this country. You know, that’s an outpouring of this kind of divisive rhetoric that we’re seeing from the top down.
And so it will be important that, you know, they see that — that this is not, you know, taking a shot at officers or public safety workers or first responders. I have several in my family. And they go to work and try to support their families like anyone else. But there also has to be an accountability piece that holds them accountable for when they do wrong. And those changes need to happen.
JAISAL NOOR: Finally, a measure to raise the Baltimore’s minimum wage. Fifteen dollars was narrowly defeated, and that’s been postponed. And we know that’s going to be on the agenda. Do you support that, raising the minimum wage to $15? Why or why not?
KRISTERFER BURNETT: Absolutely. When we talk about the cost of living in Baltimore City, how much people pay for rent as a percentage of their income — it’s very high and will only continue to get higher as you see more people coming into the city. And so, you know, the cost of living in this country hasn’t changed, you know, it’s gone up for years. I mean, milk, you know, cereal, things that just when you go to the grocery store, the prices aren’t stagnant. So wages should not also be stagnant, as well.
Now we also have to try and find a way to implement it so that it doesn’t hurt businesses, as well. And the small ones, which I have a lot of in my district; you know, I don’t have any kind of major… very few major employers. So making sure that we also aren’t putting folks out of business. But that we are investing in families, is important. So, you know, I do look forward to working on that legislation, because it’s something that I campaigned on, that I felt it was important that, you know, our families need a raise, and we have to raise the minimum wage. It’s important. So I will be, you know, supporting the Fight for $15.
KRISTERFER BURNETT: Thanks so much.
JAISAL NOOR: For our full interview with newly sworn-in District 8 Councilperson Kris Burnett, go to therealnews.com. This is Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.