Map of Baltimore, broken down by policing districts
Map of the proposed Baltimore Police Department district boundaries. Credit: Baltimore Police Department

Taking back the BPD

Baltimore spends more money per capita on policing than any other major city in the country. 

Each person’s share of the police budget is a bit more than $900 each year, and when it’s all added up, residents of the city collectively spend more than $560 million on cops. 

While the calls to defund, loudest in certain corners of the city, ultimately went unanswered in the first and second year of Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration, city residents continue to beat the drum for more accountability from the police department.

Even as the city enters its fifth year under a federal consent decree, where the Baltimore Police Department is under the watch of a judge, activists have continued to push for more control of the police department at the city level.  

If the cops are going to swallow up so much of the budget, then the agency needs to answer directly to the people, not just at budget time so goes the rationale by activists pushing for local control. 

Voters in Baltimore will get to vote to turn full control of the police department over to the city in the election to be held November 8. 

That the Baltimore Police Department is a state-administered agency with little to no local oversight, outside of the mayor appointing the police commissioner and the city council approving the budget, surprises longtime residents as much as it shocks new arrivals to the city. The department has not been under local control since before the start of the Civil War. 

Like so many things in Baltimore, reform movements coalesce around tragedy. In the case of local control, the killings of Dale Graham, Tyrone West, and Freddie Gray have driven the most recent push to regain local control of the police. 

The three men were killed between 2008 and 2015, and none of the officers who killed them were convicted of crimes connected to their respective deaths. In the case of Graham and West, no officers were even criminally charged. What was initially an effort to hold the cops accountable changed when it became clear the city needed control of the department to hold police accountable for their actions, and local control was necessary to make any meaningful reforms, according to Ray Kelly, executive director of the Citizens Policing Project, a public safety advocacy group in West Baltimore. 

In the wake of the killings of Graham and West, Kelly, Citizens Policing Project, and a broader coalition called the Campaign for Justice, Safety, and Jobs pushed for police to wear body cameras. City Hall was on board. But the Fraternal Order of Police, the union for the rank-and-file cops in the department, unleashed its powerful lobbying arm in the state capitol. The body camera effort was crushed in 2015. 

“It was a matter of [law enforcement] policing themselves, and their accountability process was 100 percent internal,” said Kelly. 

The death of Freddie Gray in police custody, and the subsequent uprising, changed both the fight for local control and helped drive a reform effort with much broader support. Body-worn cameras were put back in front of state lawmakers, who approved their use as it became clear the Baltimore Police Department was in need of tighter scrutiny and supervision. A report from the Department of Justice in 2016 showed the agency routinely violated the constitutional rights of Baltimore residents. The city and the Justice Department reached an agreement to put in a court-ordered monitor who would oversee reforms designed to assure the cops were constitutionally policing the city. 

Still, the Campaign for Justice, Safety, and Jobs knew that real oversight of the police, real reform, had to include oversight not just from the feds, but from the people of the city. 

“After 2015 and the uprising, it became apparent that we couldn’t hold the department accountable if it’s not accountable to the local government,” Kelly told Baltimore Beat.

The Campaign for Justice, Safety, and Jobs, which includes groups such as Organizing Black and Casa de Maryland, have spent years lobbying Annapolis to hand back control and oversight of the police to the city. And now they believe their efforts are about to pay off. 

“Something presented as a common sense solution,” Kelly said, describing local control, “wasn’t attainable until now.” 

As the vote approaches, the Campaign has been knocking on doors across the city in a two-pronged informational effort to reach voters. 

In Black neighborhoods, the job is to explain that the department is not under the full control of City Hall, which itself can be confusing to many. 

In majority white neighborhoods, the task is to explain how the lack of local control can lead to lax oversight of police officers and misconduct, which in turn puts Black residents in danger. 

Map of Baltimore, broken down by policing districts
Map of the proposed Baltimore Police Department district boundaries. Credit: Baltimore Police Department

Public Safety Gerrymandering 

The same effort that has pushed for local control of the police department also pushed the state to make a significant change to how the Baltimore Police Department operates. In 2019, the state passed legislation forcing the city to adopt new policing district boundaries based on crime patterns and new population data from the 2020 census.  

And while that may seem like a boring piece of inside policy baseball to many, consider that those boundaries had not been significantly altered since 1959. 

Since 1959, Baltimore City’s population has declined by more than 400,000 residents. Yet, the district lines, the boundaries used to determine where the cops patrol, how resources are allocated, have not changed. 

In early October, all that changed. The City Council passed a bill to change the policing district lines, and released a map of the new districts. 

What’s a few more cops gonna hurt?

After years of delays, Johns Hopkins is moving forward with its police force. The university released a draft memorandum of understanding with the city detailing where the proposed police force could operate. The release of the report ignited protests online and in person. But having held the necessary public hearings, the draft memorandum will head to the Baltimore City Council for a 30-day comment period. The agreement could be finalized by year’s end. 

Opponents of the Johns Hopkins police say the agency could put Black and Brown residents at risk. 

So, who allowed a private university to establish another police force in a city that has a troubled relationship with its Black residents? Well, Governor Larry Hogan, that’s who. Hogan signed a bill in 2019 approving the private police force. 

So, yes, the state of Maryland will relinquish control of the Baltimore Police Department, if the residents of the city choose that on the ballot November 8. And yes, at the same time, the state has authorized another police department to be established in the city. The proposed Hopkins cops will be limited to patrolling the areas right around the Homewood campus, and the area close to Johns Hopkins Hospital in East Baltimore. Under the current memorandum of understanding, the cops can pursue suspects beyond their patrol boundaries. The cops can also be dispatched to other areas of the city at the discretion of the mayor, and—wait for it—the governor. 

The more things change, the more they stay the same.  

Free at last, for one at least

Anyone wondering what’s the worst that could happen to a person pursued by the criminal-legal system can ask anyone who knows anything about the case of Adnan Syed. The man accused of killing Hae Min Lee in 1999, and wrongfully convicted the following year, came home in September after spending more than two decades in prison. 

On October 11, the office of the Baltimore City State’s Attorney dropped the charges against Syed citing DNA evidence that pointed to other suspects and not the man who was imprisoned for her killing. 

It was a victory for champions of justice. But it was also a reminder of how far the justice system has to go. 

Syed is home, but Keith Davis Jr. is not. 

Davis awaits his fifth trial on allegations he murdered Kevin Jones. His previous four trials ended in a hung jury; a deadlocked jury, and two convictions being overturned by judges. One of the overturned convictions resulted from the prosecution withholding key evidence from Davis’ lawyers.