The deadline for delivering local control of Baltimore’s police force — expected this year — remains unclear, despite a 2021 state law approving the change and a ballot measure overwhelmingly approved by voters last November.
Senior leaders in Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration tried to convince skeptical City Council members Tuesday evening that they have good reason for delaying the transition. But surrounded by activists at an investigative hearing, officials didn’t appear to come up with any answers that satisfied the City Council, telling members that the Scott administration needs more time to complete a final report and host community feedback sessions.
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.
State lawmakers passed in 2021 a law to shift control of the Baltimore Police Department to City Hall on Jan. 1, 2023, pending the passage of a November ballot measure calling for local control.
But the Scott administration now says that state lawmakers must further alter the city’s powers granted by the General Assembly — specifically, removing one sentence of the state constitution that says “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.”
Two competing bills that make this change, as well as a few other language tweaks, have offered separate timelines.
Administration officials told the City Council Tuesday that changing the sentence should come after the Local Control Advisory Board — the mayor-appointed commission tasked with making recommendations on the matter — completes a final report, and following additional community feedback sessions.
Scott officials said the community feedback sessions will likely take place in March and they expect the final report to be delivered by April. The General Assembly is due to wrap on April 11, and legislation introduced near the end of the lawmaking session faces an uphill battle.
Though the administration didn’t publicly signal a delay was possible until recently, internal documents reviewed by The Baltimore Banner showed that top Scott officials have had discussions since at least last spring that full implementation would require more laws passed at the state level.
A June 2022 memo written by Elena DiPietro, a chief solicitor of the city law department, took issue with the state legislation from 2021, saying there are still provisions of the Maryland Constitution in effect that are preventing local control from occurring, and that city charter needs to be further amended.
“If the General Assembly wishes to diminish the powers granted to Baltimore City or a charter county, it must do so by amending the acts which granted the powers. It may not do so by enacting a separate public local law which is merely inconsistent with the acts granting the express powers to the City or to the charter counties,” DiPietro wrote in a message to Dana Moore, the city’s chief equity officer.
In order to enact local control, those sections of the state constitution must be removed, she wrote.
Though the administration was discussing a possible delay and the need to introduce more state legislation as early as eight months ago, the additional bureaucratic steps surprised other elected city officials.
“I did not realize how much more still needed to be done,” Comptroller Bill Henry, who only recently learned local control had not already been transferred, said in an interview. “Supposedly, there has been a process that the administration had intended to follow that they are not done with, and part of that involves figuring out a structure for how the Police Department will work.”
To frustrated criminal justice reform advocates, the importance of local control couldn’t be clearer: Until the new legislation is introduced, the City Council will continue to lack legislative oversight over the police force, cutting off efforts to ramp up accountability.
“It completely ignores both the will of the people and the intent of the General Assembly in the 2021 legislation that became law,” said Molly Amster, the director of the Baltimore chapter of Jews United For Justice.
Councilman Zeke Cohen, who served alongside Scott when he was a councilman rallying for local control, wondered publicly why the mayor has adopted a “shift in posture” toward implementing it promptly.
“I think it’s important that we move as expeditiously as is humanly possible,” he said. “We’re sort of teasing out in this hearing between getting local control done this legislative session and or delaying it.”
Rival bills to establish a firm timeline for local control hit Annapolis
New bills that aim to address the administration’s legal concerns by altering the express powers defined in city charter would establish different timelines for local control. Legislation introduced by state Sen. Jill P. Carter and Del. Stephanie Smith would enact local control on June 1, 2023. A different piece of legislation from Del. Caylin Young would set a longer timeline for implementing local control: Oct. 1, 2024.
Young is a close ally of Scott; he previously served as the mayor’s legislative director and is now the deputy director of Baltimore’s Office of Equity and Civil Rights. He has since said he is amenable to moving the timeline up.
At the hearing Tuesday night, City Hall officials said that the administration has been working with the state lawmakers to combine the dueling bills and reach an agreement on an implementation date.
“Does that mean that the administration is agnostic on the timeline?” Councilman Mark Conway asked incredulously.
“We’re supportive of amending the timeline so that they’re in conjunction with one another,” replied Nina Themelis, the mayor’s interim director of government relations, adding that the administration would support implementation in late 2023 but would not waituntil 2024.
Rob Ferrell, a senior organizer with Organizing Black and a Park Heights resident, said the administration’s lack of action amounted to “political shell games.”
“The time is up for the mayor calling for accountability from everyone else while failing to follow through on one of his key issues,” he said.
Speaking for the local advisory board on Tuesday, Moore walked a fine line, telling the council that the board understood and shared the urgency of council members and advocates, but still had work to do.
She said the advisory board has studied a few different models, including a mayor-appointed board of commissioners, and is united around one that would increase oversight by requiring the council confirm the mayor’s selection for police commission and granting legislative power.
As it stands now, the council cannot create policies that impact the department — such as a now-expired ban on facial recognition technology, which prevented all city agencies from using the technology.
Moore said the administration plans to host public feedback sessions on the specific shape that local control should take, which would push the timeline well beyond the June 2023 deadline activists and several members of the City Council want.
Amster said Scott’s insistence on determining a new structure for the Police Department is an entirely separate process than advocating for a new Annapolis bill to remove a specific sentence from the state constitution.
“We can have local control right now,” she said. “The mayor wants to have a process to figure out a different governing structure, the formation of a commission or whatever else. That can happen while the City Council has legislative authority over BPD.”
Ray Kelly, a member of Local Control Advisory Board and a longtime police reform activist, said he had no idea the timeline to implement local control had gone so far off track.
He said it was no mystery to him why the General Assembly would need to amend the language of the express powers granted to the city, but he never imagined that would delay things in this way. The fix, he added, is simple: “Just erase the language.”
“Whenever the situation is unexplainable in Baltimore City, then I assume it’s politics, and that’s what I assume right now,” Kelly said. “Whatever the case may be, I really don’t care. This is what the people voted for, and you as elected representatives should be breaking your backs to get it done as soon as possible.”
Historically, Annapolis lawmakers do not vote for legislation that goes against the mayor’s wishes, no matter how outspoken members of the city delegation may be against the top city official’s agenda. Unless the administration reaches a compromise with Smith, Carter and Young and endorses a new bill, state lawmakers would be forced to choose between a bill from a close Scott ally and Smith and Carter’s bill.
Conway was quick to remind the administration that this year’s meeting of the General Assembly is nearly halfway over.
“Session is fast. It’ll be over before we know it,” he said. “If we are waiting on a report from the Local Control Advisory Board, and that doesn’t come until October or later, we’ll once again miss the boat.”
This story has been updated to correct that legislation from Sen. Carter and Del. Smith would alter the the express powers defined in city charter.