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Effort to give mayor control of Baltimore Police is dead

P. Kenneth Burns

The sponsor of a bill seeking to return control of Baltimore Police back to the city said Friday afternoon he is withdrawing his proposal.

Del. Curt Anderson, a city Democrat, discussed the bill with his colleagues in the city delegation which he chairs.  He cited a three-page opinion from the Attorney General’s Office that said returning control of the police department to the city would be “extremely expensive.”

“Baltimore City Police have the same immunity as the state government which is called sovereign immunity; which precludes them from being sued in certain areas in state courts and it gives them a limited immunity in court,” Anderson said.  “If they become a city agency, then they have limited liability and their vulnerability to suits would be greater and therefore, the cost of defending the suits would be greater.”

The city has paid millions in settlements to people alleging police abuse.  The most recent settlement was approved in February to the family of Anthony Anderson for $300,000.  Anderson died while in police custody in 2012.  His death was ruled a homicide but charges were not filed against the officers involved.  The family filed a federal lawsuit for $20 million.

Prior to that, the city settled with the family of Freddie Gray in 2015 for $6.4 million.  Gray’s in-custody death earlier in the year sparked days of protest and unrest.  Six officers were charged in Gray’s death.  Three were acquitted before charges were dropped against the others.

And the Baltimore Sun reported in 2014 that the city has paid, in sum, $5.7 million in settlements in a three year period.

Anderson sought the Attorney General’s opinion after talking with the city Law Department that gave him a similar opinion regarding the increased legal liability.

“I wasn’t sure that they were telling me this because they don’t want it or was it actually possible,” he said.

Anderson’s decision to pull the bill comes after the Baltimore City Council passed Monday a resolution in support of the measure.  But Mayor Catherine Pugh said  two days later she did not want the city police as a state agency.

The Baltimore City Police Department has been a state agency since the 19th century, when city politics were dominated by the Know-Nothing party.  Know-nothings were known for being anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic.  And they ruled with violence; usually directed at naturalized citizens who tried to vote.

In 1860, the city delegation, made up entirely of Know-Nothings, was thrown out of the general assembly.  Special elections followed and then the state took over the city police department.  It wasn’t until 1978 that the legislature gave Baltimore’s mayor the power to pick a police commissioner.

The Attorney General’s opinion was written by Sandra Benson Brantley, counsel to the General Assembly. She wrote that changing Baltimore Police from a city to a state agency may also have an effect on the consent decree negotiated between the city and the Justice Department.

Brantley said the change to the agreement, currently before Federal Judge James Bredar, would be significant enough to cause “the agreement to be renegotiated, or at a minimum, amended.”

A hearing for the bill that was scheduled for March 10 has been canceled.

The opinion from the Attorney General's Office on HB 1504 - Control of Baltimore Police Department:

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