Disband the BPD and start over
It is a not very well-known fact that the Baltimore Police Department is an agency of the state of Maryland. It was established in 1867 during the aftermath of the Civil War through an act of the General Assembly, at a time when the relationship between Baltimore and Annapolis was less than cozy and it was desirable for the governor to have control over Maryland’s largest city.
Until 1978, all commissioners of the Baltimore City Police Department were appointed by the governor. At that time, the power to hire and fire the commissioner was transferred to the mayor, with approval from the City Council. And this remains the primary means through which city government exerts control over the Police Department.
But the department’s peculiar status as a state agency brings other complications. The City Council cannot pass laws that govern the Police Department; it is instead governed by the Public Local Laws of Baltimore City, a section of the state code, and under the purview of the General Assembly. Changes to those laws are typically made by the city’s Annapolis delegation and are thus subject to the approval of the entire state legislature and the governor.
The Department of Justice’s report regarding ongoing civil rights abuses within BPD indicates massive organizational and cultural failures. Most experts in culture and management would advise that hiring and firing based on core organizational values is the primary means through which to effect large-scale change and reform.
But section16-7 of the Public Local Laws of Baltimore City prohibits the commissioner from directly firing officers below the rank of captain. This hampers the ability of the commissioner to perform one of the very tasks which may most effect the deep change required. To amend these laws will require an act of the General Assembly — which means waiting until January at the earliest.
Between now and Sept. 9, the DOJ is collecting feedback from the community about issues with and proposed remedies for the BPD; federal officials have said that by Nov. 1, they will formulate a binding consent decree between DOJ, BPD and the mayor and City Council outlining mandated remedies. It is not at all clear that the BPD, given its institutional history, culture and complex entanglements with the state of Maryland, has the capacity to execute the remedies.
At least some changes will require action by the state through the General Assembly, but the state is not party to the decree, and DOJ cannot compel the legislature to act.
The city, which will be a party to the consent decree, has very little recourse. The mayor may fire the police commissioner, but that is its singular, nuclear option. Substantive internal and procedural changes cannot be considered by the City Council.
For these reasons, I propose that this 150-year experiment be swiftly ended. Let’s shut down the Baltimore Police Department as it exists in its current form and create a new agency that is empowered and properly constituted to meet all constitutional and legal requirements as set forth by the DOJ from its inception. The General Assembly can shut down BPD and the mayor and City Council can create a new one, with personnel and assets transferred from the old agency to the new at the discretion of the commissioner.
It is certainly feasible. This year, the governor and legislature transferred control of Baltimore’s liquor board from the state to the city. In 2012, Camden, N.J., disbanded its failed police department in favor of a new one.
Skeptics will rightly point out that Baltimore City has a poor track record of governance of its departments and agencies. However, there are two flaws to this line of thinking as a reason for objecting to this option.
First, the state has not been engaged in active management of the BPD; in fact, it has largely abdicated it, leaving only a complex regime of permissions and bureaucracy that has impeded progress and diluted accountability.
Second, audits. A new, city-controlled BPD can be audited from day one. Indeed, that is coming: The DOJ is likely to recommend annual procedural, performance, and financial audits — the results of which must be public — as part of the consent decree. This is a primary way in which a federal monitor can observe progress. Additionally, Democratic mayoral nominee Catherine Pugh has gone on the record in support of annual financial and performance audits of every city department and agency. And in November, there will be a ballot question that will ask voters to impose at least biennial audits. So audits are inevitable and will have a significant positive effect on the management of all of the city’s departments and agencies.
For 150 years, the BPD has been rather like an occupying army, with 79 percent of its officers now living outside the city, and under the passive purview of the state legislature and governor. So it is no wonder that residents do not feel that the BPD is accountable to the community or to our city elected officials. It actually isn’t.
Conventional wisdom will dictate that we give the aspirin a chance first: we will try to make change with half-measures and promises and wishes. But the Baltimore Police Department, the patient, is terminal. Let’s end this chapter in Maryland history and start anew.