By Stephen Janis, Special to the AFRO

Police funding has long been the third rail of Baltimore politics, touch it and you’re sure to perish.  But the Baltimore City Council thwarted that truism last week when it axed $2 million set-aside for police administration along with a series of cuts to the mayor’s proposed budget totaling roughly $26 million.

The question now facing the city’s legislative body is, does the move represent a broader shift towards cutting law enforcement in favor of social programs, or a symbolic gesture that will have little effect on the city’s budget priorities down the road?

The Baltimore City Council voted on June 5 to cut $2 million from the police department’s budget. (Courtesy photo)

“I sincerely hope it’s not just a one-off,” 8th district councilman Kristerfer Burnett, who sits on the public safety committee and voted for the cut, told the AFRO.  “We’re all kind of coming together towards a more holistic approach to fighting crime by investing in young people and programs like Safe Streets. We know we need change it’s just a matter of where we go from here.”

The cuts came during a relatively contentious budget process.   On June 5 the Council pushed back against Mayor Catherine Pugh’s fiscal plan eliminating millions of dollars in proposed spending on mobile job vans, debt service, and money for new high-tech trash cans.  The cuts came after complaints from council members that the budget gave short shrift to programs like Safe Streets, a crime fighting program that deploy mediators into the community to deescalate conflicts, and school funding.

The $2 million cut to the Police Commissioner’s office, while small in comparison to the department’s proposed $497 million budget, was seen by some as an initial step toward reorienting Baltimore’s spending priorities.  But even council members who have actively advocated for redirecting money from law enforcement to social programs expressed doubts that the move marked a significant change in long-term funding priorities.

“It doesn’t appear that a dramatic shift in funding away from police and towards other, more proactive public safety efforts is favored by either the Mayor or a veto-proof majority of council members,” Councilman Bill Henry (D-District 4) told the AFRO.

Similar to past efforts to trim policing there was pushback.  Last week Greater Baltimore Committee chairman Donald Fry wrote a letter prior to the vote urging the council not to cut police spending.  And Council Members say constituents immediately raised concerns after the cut was announced, illustrating how difficult it is to trim policing amid a rising homicide rate and double digit increases in street robberies and carjackings.

“When the cut was first reported I started getting frantic calls from the people not to cut anything,” said Burnett. “There was definitely a negative reaction. “

But even with promises to continue seeking ways to pare back police spending, where that money eventually lands is not up to the Council. Instead, the decision of what to do with the $2 million rests solely with Mayor Catherine Pugh.

“Until the budget process is completed I can’t comment,” said Pugh of the proposed cut.  “It’s always a give and take up until the end.”

Burnett says to make long term funding changes stick, the council has to sell it.   For him that means explaining to constituents that the cuts are not aimed at taking officers off the streets, but making the department more efficient and using the savings to invest elsewhere.

“We’re not trying to cut the patrol division, but I think we can all agree we can use a few less horses in order to fund an after-school program.”

One sticking point for Burnett is the fact the city is not reimbursed for overtime to provide extra police for a variety of events like extra street staffing outside of baseball and football games.  A policy he says exacerbates patrol shortages across the city.

“I had a lot of questions about the $1.9 million dollars we spend for Raven’s and Orioles related overtime and how it affects staffing, and it was clear they didn’t have an answer.  Paying overtime to keep officers on duty downtown while the other districts go out short doesn’t make sense.”

Complicating their efforts council members say, is the continuing series of officers charged with overtime abuse and fraud, which fuels both mistrust and the perception money spent on policing is ultimately wasted.

In March, seven members of the city’s Gun Trace Task Force were indicted by federal authorities for regularly filing false overtime slips, some while they were on vacation.  Recently police Lt. Steven Bagshaw was charged with allegedly fraudulently collecting thousands of dollars of overtime pay while not showing up to work at the Horseshoe Casino where he was a supervisor.

Which is why Henry says the council should continue to push for change, if for no other reason than to try a different approach to alleviating crime in a city too wedded to policing.

“Over the last generation, the overall city budget has more than doubled and the police department budget has more than tripled, but we’re only spending about the same on recreation and parks as we did in the late 80s and early 90s.”