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Baltimoreans Demand City Council Cut $100 Million From Police Budget Cuts At Taxpayers’ Night

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Emily Sullivan/WYPR
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Nearly 70 Baltimoreans demanded the City Council cut $100 million from the Baltimore Police Department budget and reinvest the money in education, health and jobs at Taxpayers’ Night Thursday, as council members begin their fiscal year 2022 budget process.

Council members only have the authority to cut from Mayor Brandon Scott’s $4.3 billion budget. They can’t move money around.

Council President Nick Mosby spoke briefly before the virtual event began, noting the council’s inability to direct spending.

“The city's budget, just like the budgets in our own individual households, speaks to our priorities. And that's what your council is here for and working directly hand in hand with the administration,” he said.

“Essentially, Baltimore's budget is a rubber stamp from the mayor's office,” said Rob Ferrell, a senior organizer and co-founder at Organizing Black, a grassroots nonprofit. “The fact that the City of Baltimore has to scramble together on two nights to say something and hope that it changes is not a participatory process.”

Residents spoke directly to Scott at a fiery Taxpayers’ Night he hosted last month, where notable city progressive activists decried his budget, which includes a $28 million increase for the police department, bringing its budget to $555 million.

Scott has defended his budget as one that was born amid financial distress due to the pandemic and attributed the increased police budget to mandatory pension payments and insurance. He has said he will organize a task force to issue recommendations on gradually lowering the police budget in accordance with the ongoing federal consent decree. As City Council President, Scott led the council’s efforts to cut $22.4 million from the police department last year.

Dozens of residents called for a set of concrete budget demands created by Organizing Black: chiefly, slashing the police department’s budget.

“To take that amount of money from BPD requires them to actually shift structurally, to reduce the amount of impact that they have in our communities, in the role that they play in our society,” Ferrell said. “It's a realistic number. It's a fifth of their budget.”

Gwen DuBois, a doctor and lifelong Baltimorean who lives in Mount Washington, said that too many of her patients have lost their children to gun violence.

“I must speak out and urge you to reduce the amount of money we invest in policing while ignoring the root causes of violent underfunding programs that are more likely to improve the lives of our children,” she said. “Give them hope and tools to lead meaningful lives. While our city population has plummeted, the amount we budget for police has climbed.”

Thomas James, the Visual Arts Curator at Creative Alliance, said that the arts community has done more to intervene in the lives of city youth than police, despite receiving significantly less funding.

“I used to live in Bolton Hill and literally moved 15 minutes down the road to Belair Edison, which is essentially a police occupied area,” he said. “There has not been any intervention when it comes to stopping crime or even just helping people feel safer. I'm in support of defunding the Baltimore Police Department.”

While nearly all residents advocated for cutting the police budget, two residents, including Jacob Richardson, who did not identify where in Baltimore he lived, testified in support of bolstering it.

“Who in their right mind would want to cut the police budget with so many open murder cases? These people deserve peace,” he said. “These meetings are always dominated by activists, the DSA and the Open Society. They don't represent Baltimore.”

Carter Washington, who said he lives in BPD’s Eastern District, said police officers “try to understand the whole story and listen.”

“There have been gunshots in my neighborhood and some other incidents of violence. I was always glad to see the police show up,” Washington said. “I wish that we had police walking around and stopping the trouble before it starts. I realize that this is not going to happen if they do not get more funding.”

The council also heard Organizing Black’s vision for spending the $100 million they want cut from BPD: invest $30 million in a public safety trust fund to be governed through a participatory budgeting process and allocate $70 million toward affordable housing, public education, universal healthcare, jobs, a universal basic income and community programs.

“The key factor here is having a participatory budgeting process involved, so that folks in communities can have direct say over how that money is spent,” Ferrell of Organizing Black said. “So it's kind of the best of both worlds. How do we take money, put it in the hands of the community and also allow the community to drive what alternatives to policing look like?”

Randy Johnson, a middle school math teacher, said he teaches his city students about the budget. He asked them how the city could best spend money; students suggested spending on racial inequity, human trafficking, neighborhood funding, littering and pollution, healthcare, counseling, homelessness funding, substance abuse and vacant houses.

“Some were very practical: for littering, put more trash cans out,” Johnson said. “But they didn't understand the inequities that were happening because we had to dig deeper. We feel like you all understand the inequities that are happening. We feel like you made it to this position for a reason. You got elected to this position for a reason.”

“I don't think the budget gives them hope,” he continued. “I think the budget tells them more of the same: that young ladies and young men are not cared for. ...We ask you to make a change that is going to give the children some motivation.”

The organization’s demands to end the practice of sending police officers to respond to mental health distress, substance use, sex work, homelessness and other quaility-of-life issues were also heard, as were demands to create an alternative to 911 that connects residents to resources for mental health, housing, treatment and/or harm reduction resources.

Baltimore will launch a 911 diversion pilot program next month; only calls involving suicidal ideation will be diverted to social workers. Mayor Scott has said the program aims to start small before expanding.

Anna Duke, a District 12 resident with bipolar 1 disorder, shared the outcome of a 2017 interaction with police after her family called 911 while she experienced a manic episode.

“Instead of receiving emergency mental health care, I was placed in handcuffs and almost forced into a squad car until my family was able to convince them to take me away, still handcuffed, in an ambulance instead,” she recalled.

Duke said she is certain the only reason she survived the encounter is because she’s white.

“Black bipolar men like Walter Wallace Jr. are murdered by the police when their mothers call them for help during manic episodes,” she said. “Cops don't help during mental health crises.”

The council will host a series of budget hearings next week, in which city agency representatives will speak about their departments’ planned funding.

“Now it's the council's time and opportunity to really work with the agencies to better understand where we are or more importantly, where we're going,” Council Mosby said in closing remarks.

By law, the council must pass a budget by June 25. Fiscal year 2022 begins July 1.