Baltimore City Residents Seek Police Accountability Measures, More Education Funding in Next Session

Del. Stephanie M. Smith (D), chair of the Baltimore City House delegation, which heard from residents Tuesday night about their priorities for the 2021 General Assembly session. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Baltimore City leaders and residents are calling on their state representatives to ensure police accountability and to override Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s (R) veto on the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future bill to reform public schools in the upcoming General Assembly session.

“We have to override the governor’s shortsighted veto [on Blueprint for Maryland’s Future],” Baltimore mayor-elect Brandon M. Scott (D) told the Baltimore City legislative delegation in a public hearing Tuesday evening. “Our students need to learn in environments worthy of their promise and we all know that has not been the case.”

“The events of this year have made it more clear for us that on the forefront, reimagining public safety must be a top priority,” he continued. He also asked state lawmakers to support reforming the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights and to help city officials with group violence reduction strategies and to confront gun trafficking in the city.

Ensuring police reform and accountability

Many public officials, community leaders and residents emphasized the need to restore local control over the Baltimore Police Department back to the city government. The mayor and city council need to have the ability to make operational and systemic changes at the request of Baltimore citizens or at the request of Baltimore City Commissioner Michael Harrison, Baltimore’s Comptroller-elect Bill Henry (D) said.

Without direct influence of the people in the city, BPD will never be fully accountable to the true interests of city residents, local leaders contended. Instead, residents have to rely on state legislators, most of whom do not live in Baltimore, during a limited amount of time per year during session to address concerns over public safety. The lack of local control has been a major roadblock to proper oversight and structural reform in the city’s police department, those who testified said.

The Baltimore Police Department has been under state control since 1860.

“What better means of dismantling the barriers between the [Baltimore Police Department] and the residents of Baltimore City than giving the residents and their representatives, who share their experiences as representatives as well as residents, the capability of working together to create the accountability necessary for reforms within our police department?” Donna Brown, a representative for The Campaign for Justice, Safety & Jobs and Citizens Policing Project, told the delegation.

The Civilian Review Board of Baltimore City is an independent agency for the public to issue complaints against law enforcement officers.

But the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights prevents the civilian review board from conducting investigations that lead to actual discipline. Instead, the board’s actions often turn out to be “nothing more than recommendations,” Tierra Hawks, the chair of the Northeastern District of the CRB told the delegation. This “renders the CRB virtually toothless to hold police officers accountable.”

The CRB was recently asked to sign confidentiality agreements, which hampers public faith in the agency, Hawks continued.

Community leaders and residents also called state lawmakers to support reforms to the Maryland Public Information Act that would disclose all complaints of police misconduct. Otherwise, the investigations surrounding police accountability often become “unwieldy,” Hawks said.

Override veto on Blueprint for Maryland’s Future

With the digital divide and other inequities brought to light by the COVID-19 pandemic, local leaders and residents stressed the need for more funding for Baltimore City’s public education. To start, the legislature should override  Hogan’s veto of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, they told the delegation.

This legislation is based off recommendations from the Kirwan Commission, which has studied how to improve education for years and found that education funding in the state is regressive and that the poorest jurisdictions receive the least.

Over 10 years, the bill proposed spending an extra $4 billion a year to help achieve advanced and equitable education for Maryland students and raise teacher salaries.

“An override of the Kirwan veto will be critical to our long term sustainability,” said Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Sonja Santelises. “This was vital pre-COVID…and it is even more imperative now.”

This bill would also help give teachers more planning time, Jacob Harnist, a teacher in city, told the delegation. He said he currently only has one hour of planning time a week.

Over $131 million, from a budget that was already stretched, has already been spent for pandemic-related costs, said Linda Chinnia, the board chair of Baltimore City School Commissioners. She expects a $21 million gap in the budget for the current fiscal year.

Funding is driven by enrollment, but this has fallen across the state during the pandemic. Chinnia implored state officials to not use enrollment declines this year as a measure to decide on future school funding.

Although the current precarious economy caused by the pandemic will most likely require changes to the original Blueprint legislation, the need to increase education funding remains, Chinnia said.

“When the governor vetoed the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, it now puts school systems like Baltimore City in a predicament of trying to find the appropriate resources to provide the needed services,” she said.

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