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Baltimore Police a state agency? What does that mean for consent decree?

P. Kenneth Burns

In case you missed it, the Baltimore City Police Department is a state agency.  It has been that way since the 19th century and it might affect the city’s negotiations with the Department of Justice for sweeping police reforms.

It all started in 1854 when the Know-Nothing party took control of city government.

“Know-Nothings were anti-immigrant and – to some extent though less in Maryland than elsewhere – anti-Catholic,” said Matthew Crenson, retired political science professor from Johns Hopkins University.

Crenson added the Know-Nothings ruled with violence; usually directed at naturalized citizens who tried to vote.  He says the Know-Nothings allegedly killed between 20 and 30 people during the election of 1856.

Everything came to a head in 1860 when the city’s delegation – entirely made up of Know-Nothings – showed up in Annapolis for the General Assembly session.

“They were tolerated for the duration of the session,” Crenson said, “but at the very end, they were unseated.”

Special elections followed and then the state took over the Baltimore Police Department “to an even greater extent than they have today,” he said.

Back then, the governor and state lawmakers chose the leadership of the city police – in various forms – for more than a century.  It wasn’t until 1978 that the legislature gave Baltimore’s mayor the power to pick a police commissioner.

But the department, itself, remains a state agency to this day.

The current mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, says she does more than pick a police commissioner.

“I approve high-level requests for promotions; we talk strategy,” she says. “I’m in constant conversation with the commissioner around the outcomes and making sure that there’s the significant engagement at every level to make sure that we continue focusing on having a safer city.”

But what the mayor can’t do unilaterally is change state law. 

If a state law that guides city police policy needs to be changed to accommodate the reforms under negotiation, the mayor will have to go to Annapolis and ask the General Assembly to make the changes.

Crenson, who has been working on a book explaining the city’s relationship to the state, says Baltimore has been an underpowered city since before it was incorporated in 1797.

The relationship between a Baltimore mayor and a Maryland governor is “important” to the city, he said.

And in the case of Rawlings-Blake and Governor Larry Hogan, “it’s not very good as the governor has let us know on several occasions,” Crenson said.

In spite of the frosty relationship between the mayor and the governor, she sent a letter to him last week with the city’s funding requests for next year’s state budget.

Reminding the governor that the Baltimore Police Department is a state agency, Rawlings-Blake asked Hogan to fund more than $30 million in upgrades for the department.

The mayor wrote that she anticipates that the upgrades will be “part of what will ultimately be memorialized in a consent decree” the city is negotiating with the federal government to reform the police department.

Adam Ruther, a former city prosecutor who is now in private practice, says the department “retains a fair amount of autonomy when it comes to policies and procedures and general orders and the maintenance of its own system [even though it is a state agency.]”

Jamar Brown, Ruther’s colleague at Rosenberg, Martin and Greenberg and also a former city prosecutor, adds that the city needs to be clear about what it can and cannot do during negotiations.

“There are collective bargaining agreements, there is state law; both of which could impact the negotiations,” Brown said.

The city and Justice Department agreed to try to finish negotiations by November 1.

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