The Baltimore County Police Department keeps things close to the vest.
Under a county executive administration that bills itself the “most transparent” in Baltimore County’s history, Police Department officials have closed ranks around public information.
The police communications office often fails or declines to make the department’s top brass, like new Police Chief Robert McCollough and commanders, available for public comment. Its press office answers reporters’ questions only through email.
And the department often requires a public records request for information that other jurisdictions post online — like the downloadable datasets at Open Baltimore — and then routinely blows past the 30-day deadline set by the Maryland Public Information Act.
The flow of information is similar from many departments across Johnny Olszewski Jr.’s administration, which last week refused to provide news outlets an electronic copy of the county’s $738,000 contract for ShotSpotter surveillance unless reporters filed a public record request.
It took one week for the county to provide The Banner with the contract after announcing the agreement. The Office of Law redacted information about where ShotSpotter hardware — which uses audio sensors to identify gunfire and where it’s occurring — will be installed in the southwestern Wilkens and eastern Essex police precincts.
The Baltimore Police Department, by contrast, provided the city’s ShotSpotter contract, unredacted, to police reform advocacy organization Campaign Zero in 2022.
Additionally, the Baltimore County Police Department’s press office would not make any law enforcement officer available for comment about ShotSpotter, which meant their only public statements were in press releases. What the public gets out of those responses is often inadequate, especially for a technology with as many questions as ShotSpotter.
The Banner and its attorney have sought various public records over the last year from the county’s public safety agencies — to little avail. That’s despite the intervention of county attorney James Benjamin and Olszewski’s communications chief, who have met with The Banner and its attorney, as well as police and emergency officials, several times over five months.
It wasn’t always like this. In 2019, former police spokeswoman Ofc. Jen Peach provided reporters with police reports weekly. That practice ended prior to the pandemic; the department’s press office said the end of the weekly crime updates was due to the department’s shift to a new records management system, which made it difficult to deliver police reports on a rolling basis.
Even the department’s police union in recent years has been frustrated with the public opaqueness. Under former Police Chief Melissa Hyatt, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #4 regularly posted county crime statistics on Twitter, and were particularly critical of the department’s failure to publish nonfatal shooting numbers.
The county’s crime data dashboard, which functions under Olszewski’s Office of Government Reform and Strategic Initiatives, only shows the numbers of weapons law violations and assault offenses. Data is pulled from offense statistics county police report to federal authorities.
The crime dashboard is meant to be updated monthly; but unlike Baltimore City, Baltimore County doesn’t allow the public to download crime data.
You can, however, download datasets mapping all of the county’s fire hydrants.
Baltimore public housing waitlist will reopen for first time in four years
After being closed to new applicants for nearly four years, the Housing Authority of Baltimore City will reopen its public housing waitlist for a two-week period starting Aug. 1.
But that doesn’t mean having access to a limited number of housing subsidies will get any easier.
The authority, which owns and manages public housing sites across the city with public funding, said in a Friday news release that it will open as many as 13,000 spots on the waitlist. If there are more than that number of applications, the authority will choose who is selected at random.
Only after making it to the top of the list will people then be able to apply for federal housing subsidies from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Consideration for the awarding of subsidies also is given to household size and housing preference, among other criteria.
Representatives from the authority declined to say how many people were currently waiting in the queue for subsidized housing. In spring 2022, it had as many as 10,000 people on the waitlist.
An affordable housing shortage, coupled with high mortgage interest rates, less regional construction activity and soaring materials and appliance costs during the coronavirus pandemic have worsened already serious real estate challenges in the Baltimore area, economists and realtors say. On Wednesday, a small group of protestors rallied outside Baltimore government offices and City Hall to urge Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration to heed the calls for more housing assistance and programming.
They also asked how the authority would maintain fairness during the waitlist selection process.
In Friday’s news release, HABC President and CEO Janet Abrahams said the randomizing of who gets picked will ensure all applicants have an equal chance. “We urge all eligible individuals and families to utilize this opportunity and get placed on the new housing list,” she said.
Applications for the list can be submitted online at habc-onthelist.myhousing.com, and the authority said several sites around the city will also be open to the public for those who need access to a computer or internet. People with disabilities or others who need additional support can also contact the call center for assistance at 1-888-301-8292.