A last-minute effort to shield some of the powers held by Baltimore’s police commissioner from City Council legislation was rejected by a coalition of police reform advocates on Tuesday, representing the latest roadblock in a years long effort to shift control of the police department under city government.

For the last 160 years, Baltimore City has been the only jurisdiction in Maryland without total control of its police department, a relic of political turmoil dating back to the 1850s. Last November, voters overwhelmingly approved making the police department a city agency.

But some advocates, including one member of the Local Control Advisory Board tasked with implementing the new power structure, have bristled at how Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration has shepherded the process. Their frustrations spread to City Council chambers last week, with council members admonishing the administration to get the ball rolling on what voters had already decided was a priority.

One of the last hurdles to clear before City Council members can begin legislating Baltimore Police Department policy issues is a line in the city charter that outlines powers granted by the General Assembly. The line states that “no ordinance of the City or act of any municipal officer, other than an act of the Mayor pursuant to Article IV of this Charter, shall conflict, impede, obstruct, hinder or interfere with the powers of the Police Commissioner.”

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That line has always stood in the way of the local control envisioned by advocates. But after the ballot question passed in the fall, the mayor’s administration signaled it intended to wait for a final report from the advisory board before changing the charter, spurring dueling bills in the General Assembly and a heated debate over whether the administration was being calculated or simply dragging its feet.

The latest compromise — an amendment offered by Baltimore Democrat Del. Caylin Young, a longtime advocate of local control — would have preserved deployment and investigative strategies, as well as any staffing or daily management decisions out of the powers currently granted to the police commissioner under city law, instead of simply removing the sentence, as had been discussed previously.

The amendment was requested by the police commissioner, Young said, over concerns that the position should retain authority over the finer details of how the agency is run. The delegate added that those types of powers were never intended to be subject to local control anyway.

Young said the deal would allow the City Council to legislate on “everything except day-to-day operations and employment strategy.” The change would take effect on June 1, the timeline advocates had requested.

“We can get this done if you want to get this done,” Young said. “The question is, what do they want? If they said they want local control, we have provided for the venue to make it happen with the timeline they want and all the powers they said they want. If they want something clearer, give us language that makes it clearer, and we’ll look at it.”

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But community advocates for local control had no interest in the deal.

Ray Kelly, a member of the Local Control Advisory Board and part of a coalition of activists pushing back against the administration’s plans, said the amendment was a non-starter because it would have continued to limit what the City Council could legislate when it came to the city’s police department.

And it would have done so without a community debate on the scope of the limitations, he added. The amendment, Kelly said, was “another delay tactic.”

“If we have local control, these things should be debated and established at a local level,” Kelly said. “There’s nobody proposing that anyone changes the powers of the commissioner or anything like that at this point. ... You have to remove that language. You can’t pick and choose.”

Kelly, who has sat on the advisory board for years and worked on the issue, said it was the first time he’d heard concerns about the scope of legislative authority interfering with the police commissioner’s ability to run the day-to-day operations of the department. He emphasized that voters overwhelmingly approved local control under a certain framework, and the last-minute interpretations made him suspect that there were more political motivations at play.

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“For it [the amendment] to come after the people have presented their will is just unethical to me,” Kelly said.

In a statement Wednesday evening, the Baltimore Police Department expressed concerns “on any legislation that would interfere with the day-to-day operations of the BPD to include staffing, deployment and investigations.”

“We support local control and believe that Article II, Section 27 should be updated in order to provide for the appropriate balance between the legislative oversight of the [city] council and the executive management of the department,” the department said.

As part of the department’s federal consent decree, a civilian task force said in a 2018 report that attempts at oversight would be meaningless without local control of the department.

“The BPD will never be fully accountable to its residents until full control of the department is returned to the city,” the group said.

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Maryland state senators were holding a hearing on one of the bills to facilitate local control on Wednesday afternoon.

At that hearing, City Councilman Mark Conway, chair of the public safety committee, urged lawmakers to support a proposal by Sen. Jill Carter, a Baltimore Democrat, that would remove the line from the city charter altogether and put full legislative authority into the hands of the council by June.

Conway said the issue took on new urgency for him after it was revealed at the hearing last week that neither the General Assembly, nor the City Council, had the ability to legislate policy issues for the city’s police department.

“At the moment, the Baltimore Police Department sits in limbo,” Conway said. “Nobody has legislative authority over the police department, and that presents a problem.”

Kim Sauer, chief of staff for City Council member Kristerfer Burnett, also spoke in favor of Carter’s legislation.

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In response to questions from state lawmakers about Mayor Scott’s position on her bill, Carter said it was her understanding that the mayor hadn’t yet formally taken a position, but that his administration “has a view of not having it happen immediately and in the way that it would happen if we strike this line.”

Scott’s office did not answer questions about the amendment on Wednesday, but Dana Moore, director of Baltimore’s Office of Equity and Civil Rights and co-chair of the Local Control Advisory Board, said during the hearing that she would support Carter’s legislation with an amendment similar to the one proposed by Young.

Asked why the amendment was necessary, Moore said that day-to-day decisions should be relegated to the head of the police department, not the City Council.

“The whole goal is to make it act and operate like any other city agency,” Moore said.

After the hearing, Conway said in a statement that he didn’t support the amendment proposed by Young and supported by Moore.

“The council and I have no interest in micromanaging the department, but this broadly worded amendment is a misguided effort to continue placing restrictions on the people of Baltimore’s representatives’ ability to legislate on a city agency funded by city taxpayers,” Conway said. “No other city agency has these kind of restrictions, and the council does not have a history of trying to micromanage any other agency through legislation.”

bconarck@thebaltimorebanner.com

Ben Conarck is a criminal justice reporter focusing on law enforcement for The Baltimore Banner. Previously, he covered healthcare and investigations for the Miami Herald and criminal justice for the Florida Times-Union. 

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