Elizabeth Embry: We’re Wasting Time Arresting Addicts


TRNN’s in-depth discussions with mayoral candidates continues with Elizabeth Embry who says she will open up city hall, exert top down control of the city’s ailing housing department, and revamp a police department she says needs better training and higher quality officers

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STEPHEN JANIS, TRNN: This is Stephen Janis reporting for the Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland. The mayor’s race is heating up. There are now 29 candidates. And we have been talking to them in depth, asking them about a variety of issues, including housing, policing, economics, and a living wage. Today we talk to Elizabeth Embry about her vision for the city, and how she fits into its future.

[Inaud.] has introduced legislation to decriminalize very small amounts of a variety of substances to–because he says the war on drugs is not working. What’s your reaction to that policy? With some of your supporters, is there some parts that you support?

ELIZABETH EMBRY: I totally agree that the war on drugs has been a failure. And I think that’s pretty generally agreed, but what you do with that information is the question. And in my crime plan I talk about what that could mean for Baltimore City.

And so one thing I’m fully supportive of is not arresting people for marijuana. Marijuana arrests in this city, first of all, they increased even when arrests overall were going down, especially misdemeanor arrests. And arrests for marijuana are overwhelmingly of black men, even though marijuana use is pretty much equivalent between blacks and whites. And I’ve also, having prosecuted marijuana cases, seen that it really is not a good use of the system. It doesn’t help anyone. It certainly burdens a system that doesn’t, that needs a focus on cases with victims of crime.

So I’m very much supportive of looking at marijuana as a public health problem, and getting it out of the system entirely. And that’s something you can, as mayor, say. That’s not something we’re focused on. We’re not making arrests for marijuana.

In terms of drugs that are more addictive, like heroin especially, cocaine, it’s a little bit different, because heroin is highly addictive. So that’s trickier, but again, the criminal justice system is not the answer to addiction. It’s, the public health system is. And so I want to look at how we, within the city of Baltimore, how we police so that we’re not arresting people for being poor and addicted to drugs. We’re putting people directly into the public health sector.

JANIS: Well, we have–you know, we had 26 methadone clinics. So we certainly have this sort of treatment infrastructure. When it comes to a thing like heroin, where there has been a rise in the number of people, how do you approach it? I mean, he says decriminalize just small amounts and give people safe places to use it. Is that the way you do it? Because otherwise you come back to the criminal justice system. What do you think is the best way to approach that?

EMBRY: Well, I’m looking at how do you get people into treatment, right? And so methadone is one method, but buprenorphine is a great, is a great alternative, because A, it’s effective, but also because it’s something that can be prescribed by doctors and administered privately. So it’s, methadone clinics, one of the problems is communities with methadone clinics often are unhappy because if the clinic is not properly managed there can be, you know, spillover effects into the neighborhood. Whereas buprenorphine is something that, you know, it’s entirely private. So someone can get their prescription and can be prescribed it, and it’s not something that’s so public in the community.

JANIS: So why is this city–I totally agree with you, because I [wrote] an article about ten years ago. Why has the city not embraced buprenorphine, and why do we keep having methadone clinics, and how do we address that?

EMBRY: Well, one of the things generally I would say, and I’ve served on the [BSAS] board before it was merged with Behavioral Systems Baltimore. And so we looked at the structural framework of treatment in Baltimore and Maryland. And so it’s interwoven, right, because the reimbursements are primarily at the state level, and it’s a very complicated system, with insurance, private insurance, Medicaid.

So what we have not done well as a city–because we have some of the leading treatment experts in the country in Baltimore–.

JANIS: Do we have too many methadone clinics?

EMBRY: I would like to see a shift towards more private treatment methods that don’t require people coming from outside neighborhoods into neighborhoods, and also having clinics that are not clustered, but are, but are really distributed for where the need is.

JANIS: Yeah. So we, we also–you also worked with the police department. We have the second-largest police department per capita–

EMBRY: In the country.

JANIS: –in terms of [inaud.], and yet we have the highest crime rate. I mean, how do you reconcile those two issues? I mean, if policing works, why isn’t the crime rate lower? And given the fact that policing sucks up so many resources, is it time to rethink that, you know, kind of balance of resources in the city government?

EMBRY: Well, certainly my, my public safety plan talks about how you look at where we’re spending our money, in terms of law enforcement. And I would like to spend a lot less money on arresting people for being addicts, which we spend a–you know, that’s one of our primary number of arrests, is misdemeanor drug arrests. And I don’t think that’s a good use of our time or money, and it’s not positively impacting violent crime.

So I want to spend more resources within the police department on violent crime, and I talk about what that means, and the different programs that work. But I also want to spend more money in programs like Safe Streets, which is part of the health department budget, and programs like Thread or Choice, or programs that are outside of city government that support juvenile justice interventions, so they’re keeping kids out of the system.

So yeah, I’d like to spend money outside of that framework, but also–.

JANIS: Yeah, what do you do to, to amend those relationships with the community and police department, going forward?

EMBRY: It’s so hard. And so I’ve spent a lot of my career prosecuting cases, or as deputy states’ attorney overseeing the prosecution of cases. And what I’ve seen, and I’ve worked with thousands of victims and witnesses and thousands of detectives and officers, and I’ve seen very much up close and personal that breakdown.

And I’ve also seen, though, that there is a desire on both sides for the trust to exist, and to be rebuilt, because every community member wants to call the police and feel like someone’s coming to save me, and help me, and be a protector and a partner. That’s what you want when you call the police. And the police department are, overwhelmingly people who become officers are doing it because they want to be public servants, and they want to help people. So the breakdown is unnecessary, but it is very real. And I’ve had to deal with it. I’ve had to convince victims and witnesses to participate in prosecutions, and believe in the system, and believe in the integrity of the system. And sometimes that’s a real challenge.

So it’s, it’s something I’ve spent my career dealing with, and I know how important it is. But how do you do it, right, because that’s hard. And it’s how you recruit, and how you train, and when you recruit officers or police who come from a mentality of sort of a military mentality you get one kind of officer, and if you recruit officers who come from more of a community partnership mentality you get a different kind of officer.

JANIS: [Inaud.]

EMBRY: Right. And so it’s how you recruit, the messages and recruitment and where you’re looking. It’s also training. Training is the first thing to fall off the priority list in the police department, because it’s an agency like every other that’s always responding to what’s a crisis [today], and training is easy to put aside. And so there’s been a lot of turnover of leadership within training, lack of attention to curriculum, lack of commitment to really having community involvement. And also lack of commitment to relying on experts in the field, because there’s modules that work.

So it’s making it a priority, and making it a sustained priority. A really important piece is how you measure, because everybody, from officers to people picking up the trash, to the mayor and deputy mayor, is responding to how am I being measured, what are the outcomes that people are looking for? And if an officer is primarily measured by how many arrests they make, then that’s what they will do.

So obvious—right.

JANIS: Sure. That’s what–. [Inaud.] yeah, it gives the wrong incentives.

EMBRY: Right. And so what are the incentives we want as a city? We want quality arrests. And related to that are arrests that make a difference in the crime in that neighborhood. So a response to what is happening and what the community cares about. So if the neighborhood’s suffering from burglaries, marijuana arrest doesn’t make a difference. You want to be arresting people for burglaries. Sounds obvious, but you need to figure out what those metrics are.

It’s the quality of the prosecution, and as a prosecutor it’s very frustrating, because you have one detective who’s doing everything you need and you’ve got this really solid case because you have three witnesses, and forensic evidence, and another detective who’s onto their next case and hasn’t spent any time on it. And so you want to also know which are the detectives and officers who are producing really quality cases for prosecution. Whatever the appropriate outcome is in the courtroom.

And then the final thing is measuring the satisfaction of the community and the interaction, and that’s not impossible to do [inaud.].

JANIS: Do you agree with Marilyn Mosby’s decision to indict the six police officers? Do you think she made the right decision?

EMBRY: I, as a prosecutor, have to say without knowing the evidence and being inside of that decision it would be completely inappropriate to comment on it.

JANIS: [Inaud.]. I just wanted to ask. That’s a reasonable answer. So let’s move on to taxes. You know, Carl Stokes is saying he wants to lower taxes by a dollar. Certainly, you know, people I’ve talked to, that Baltimore City tax rate is probably the biggest problem. It’s twice the jurisdiction, it makes no sense, and it sort of isolates the city economically. You know, what–but of course we’re constrained a little bit by our spending obligations. What do you want to do with the tax rate?

EMBRY: Right. And so as you’ve described, the problem has been a spiraling over–as the city’s gotten poorer, the property tax rate has taken up more and more of the burden for the reduced property values and reduced income streams from, like, income tax revenue and other sources. So we’ve–and then it just self-perpetuates. You raise the property tax rate, and you’ve–even fewer people wanting to buy houses in the city. So I don’t think anyone questions that it’s a real problem, puts us at a competitive disadvantage in terms of attracting businesses and homeowners, and keeping people here.

So the question is, how quickly can you reduce taxes, and how do you connect that to increases in other sources of revenue? Because the goal is to reduce our reliance on property tax revenue, and increase our reliance on income tax revenue and other sources based on the prosperity of the city growing. So it has to be graduated, it has to be proportionate and related to the increases in other streams of revenue. But it has to be a true commitment from the mayor so that people can say okay, this is coming. I understand when it will take effect, I can make life plans around that.

JANIS: So do you agree with Stokes’ idea of a dollar? Or you–.

EMBRY: So I will be releasing–not to avoid the question, but I will be releasing a plan with more specifics.

JANIS: It’s a, it’s a weighty issue. I mean, you know, because we are kind of constrained by a lot of things. And of course, you know, policing is one of the things, like pensions, you know, keeps going up. So–but that’s something you are going to announce at some point, of what you would do specifically.

EMBRY: Our next rollout will be around economic development, jobs, and taxes.

JANIS: Well, speaking of that–.

EMBRY: And I’d love to talk even more at that point.

JANIS: Yeah, we’ll come back. The, you know, we keep awarding TIFs and special tax breaks [sort of] segregate economically. Do you–what do you think? I mean, do you support TIFs, and do you support going forward with more tax breaks, or do you have a different idea? What do you see for the future, in terms of that kind of program to, you know, incentivize investment in the city?

EMBRY: So I think TIFs and PILOTs are in and of themselves just neutral tools. And the question is always, is this the appropriate project to receive a subsidy in the form of a TIF or a PILOT. And is, are the numbers right? Is the city spending only as much as is worth it for whatever those benefits are? I mean, that’s just the fundamental–to me, the way I would view it. And where I’ve seen the city fall short is in making those two decisions. Is this project best for the city as a whole, meaning it helps–and what are those metrics? And the mayor has to decide that. I mean, is it the number of jobs? Is it the number of jobs for residents of the city? Is it just looking at construction jobs, or is it looking at permanent jobs? Is it affordable housing? Is it a neighborhood that just needs an anchor grocery store as part of a development?

So those are hard questions, but that should be the lens through which it’s viewed, is this good for the city as a whole, and the best, the best project to receive a subsidy, versus other options? Because you’re always choosing between options.

JANIS: Well, then, what about Harbor Point? $100 million. Was that the best use of city money?

EMBRY: I mean, that was, that appears by all accounts to be–and I don’t pretend to know the internal workings of the decision, which are important–.

JANIS: Sure. No, I get it. It wasn’t your decision, so I’m not, I’m just wondering if you [inaud.].

EMBRY: But there’s, to me there’s a lot of questions about whether that was, whether the, whether the math on that is right. But without knowing, without knowing what was provided, it’s difficult to assess it. But then the, the second question is, is it the right project? Is the developer proposing the right number of units, and the right subsidy match, and is the city aggressive enough in pushing back and saying, that’s not what we find, we think actually this is the appropriate amount.

So I think what’s different, from what my administration, from what’s currently being done, is A, having that lens of what is good for the city as a whole, and B, having, having the strength within city government to properly analyze and push back where the project does not meet those, those criteria.

And then the final thing, which I didn’t touch on before, is the process has to be fair, predictable, and efficient. Which means that if a project does make sense, that it happens on a timetable that is, that is reasonable, so that people want to invest in the city. Because they understand if I do X, Y, and Z these things will happen in this time frame, so I can tell my investors what that will look like. And that’s essential for attracting investment to the city. Or if the answer’s no it doesn’t make sense, that answer is given quickly so a developer, investors can look at another project. So it’s having government that’s predictable, transparent, and efficient. And transparent also means having citizens understand what went into that decision, what was proposed and what was the city’s response.

JANIS: So are you saying you’re going to change the way now these things are [burdened] inside the BDC, and get rarely, little scrutiny, or any sort of public–by the time it gets to the council it’s pretty much a done deal. Are you saying that you’re going to open up that process from the beginning, of a tax break–when a developer comes, says I want a tax break, and will it be more transparency, maybe somebody else to analyze it? Because right now there’s no sort of outside analyst. It’s always a developer comes with their plan. Are you saying you’re going to change that process?

EMBRY: What I’m saying is the BDC assessment process, I want that to be something that is more understandable and transparent to the public.

JANIS: Okay, so you’re going to change it a little bit.

EMBRY: Yeah.

JANIS: Do you believe that Paul Graziano should be fired?

EMBRY: I’ve had concerns for a very long time about the oversight of the housing authority. And one of the, one of the key things that I would do as mayor is subject the housing authority to the oversight of City Hall and specifically of city [stat]. Because even though it is federally funded, it is a commissioner who is responsible to the mayor and appointed by the mayor. And the housing authority, not just under the current mayor but going back many mayors, has not been subject to city [stat]. And the problems that have arisen are exactly what city [stat] is designed to address. Whether repairs are done. Are they done timely, and are they done to the satisfaction of the resident, the tenant. That is perfect for city stat. It’s data, and it’s assessing the performance of city government.

The sex for repairs complaints, they were not–I don’t know what Graziano knew or when, but certainly they were known to the housing authority.

JANIS: Yeah, they were.

EMBRY: Absolutely. And that it should be known to the mayor, and the mayor should be monitoring, and the mayor’s senior staff should be monitoring the fact of the complaints, where they are in the process, the resolution. And that is something that you cannot do unless you as mayor have operational authority over the housing authority.

So to me that’s a failure not just of Graziano, but also of, of City Hall.

JANIS: If you’re elected, will Graziano have a position?

EMBRY: I would be looking for, for a new housing commissioner.


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