By Stephen Janis and Taya Graham
Special to the AFRO

For the past two decades the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) has garnered a growing share of the city’s discretionary spending.

Even after a Department of Justice investigation determined the BPD had employed racist and unconstitutional tactics, the city not only raised the department’s annual  budget  which now stands at $509 million for the upcoming fiscal year, but was forced to spend millions more for training and consultants to monitor progress towards promised reforms.

But that trend may be changing.

Baltimore Police Department (AP Photo, File)

Earlier this week protesters gathered in front of city hall to call for police to be defunded. The movement, which has gained traction across the country after the death of George Floyd in police custody, seeks to reallocate resources from law enforcement into programs like education and affordable housing as a better way to ensure public safety.

“Every penny that is divested from the BPD can be spent on healthcare, education, jobs, sanitation and other numerous needs,” Sharon Black, a member of the People’s Power Assembly who organized the protest told the AFRO

“What’s not acceptable for us is delaying moving on an urgent crisis and implementing band-aid and ineffective reforms.”

The defund the police movement is part of a broader set of demands for a sweeping set of structural reforms since the death of Floyd captured on video stunned a nation already accustomed to police violence.  But it remains to be seen if the new-found sense of urgency prompts action inside city hall.

In a letter obtained by the AFRO from city council president Brandon Scott to current Mayor Jack Young, Scott asked for cuts to the current BPD budget and for the administration to empanel a special task force to recommend long term changes to how the department is funded.

“I have started by identifying tens-of-millions of dollars in strategic cuts to the BPD’s budget, that do not impact service,” Scott wrote,  

“I respectfully recommend that you and I work in a partnership to appoint a task force of city officials, residents, and other stakeholders that can develop a proposal for responsibly redirecting resources from our police department over the next few years. “

Mayor Young however, seemed lukewarm to the proposal.

“I caution the council against making any dramatic cuts,” Young wrote in response to Scott’s request.    

“I appreciate your suggestion to convene a task force focused on these issues, but out of respect for the role of the council in the budget process I will have to politely decline.”

Despite the lack of agreement on how to shape future funding, there is little doubt the city’s investment in policing has come at a price to other services.   

An investigative report by WBALTV’s Jayne Miller found the city has shuttered roughly 40 recreation centers since 1993.  Over the same time period police spending rose 1.5 percent annually while funds for education dropped in inflation adjusted dollars by half a percent per year.

The city also funds generous retirement benefits for officers that contribute to a mounting structural deficit. In 2020 alone, the city spent roughly $250 million on contributions to police and fire pensions along with funding for retiree healthcare. Over the past decade the city has contributed roughly $1 billion to the police and fire pensions.

The long-term structural costs are one of the reasons Scott says planning will be a key component of any successful effort to reign in police spending. 

“We must also be committed to this as a process in the coming years. We have to make cuts where we can now, while putting in the work to make more systemic shifts over the long-term.”