By Sean Yoes
AFRO Baltimore Editor
Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison spoke exclusively to the AFRO about budget cuts to his department that went into effect on July 1, and the role of law enforcement in Baltimore. Part one of two.
The American experience is knit together by a series of transcendent moments many of which have changed the trajectory of the country.
The murder of George Floyd was one of those moments.
For 8 minutes and 46 seconds on Memorial Day, a White police officer kneeled on Floyd’s neck, murdering him in broad daylight on a street in Minneapolis. Life in America hasn’t been the same since.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison talks with the AFRO from his offices at police headquarters about the movement to defund the police. Recently, budget cuts of more than $22 million to his department were enacted on July 1. (Photo Credit:Sean Yoes)
Yet, because of that transcendent and heinous moment the decades old conversation about law enforcement reform in America has shifted into a movement to defund police departments across the nation; a movement that is gaining momentum.
With 168 homicides at the midpoint of the year, Baltimore is once again grappling with the specter of more than 300 murders in 2020 (the city has reached that grim metric every year since 2015, the year of the Uprising). Now, the city is confronted with budget cuts to the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) for the first time in many years.
Last month, the Baltimore City Council voted to cut the BPD budget by $22.4 million in 2021, which went into effect on July 1. After a long and sometimes arduous debate, the Council passed the cuts with little resistance on most of the budget items targeted for reduction. Baltimore City Council President and Mayor Elect Brandon Scott promised “tens of millions of dollars” of more cuts to the BPD budget over the course of a multi year plan.
“We have been asked to be all things to all people,” said Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison during a conversation at his offices at BPD headquarters at 601 E. Fayette St. downtown.
“Yes, we are asked to be social workers and psychologists and in the event there is a medical emergency, we’re almost asked to be first responders and medics and paramedics. We are asked to be all things to all people because there has not been an entity in government to provide that service 24 hours a day, seven days a week across a whole city,” he added.
“I don’t know if it is too much to ask, but it certainly is a lot to ask.”
In the wake of the budget cuts to his department, the eighth largest municipal police force in the United States, Harrison and others ask what city agency will assume some of Baltimore’s ubiquitous social burdens now shouldered by the BPD? What does a reimagined paradigm in law enforcement and city governance look like in Baltimore?
“The issue is, yes, there has to be another entity, or discipline of people, and resources who are better suited to handle those social things other than police. Yes, we can train police to do some of it. But…I didn’t go to school for a degree in social work or psychology,” said Harrison, who has been at the helm of the BPD for about a year and a half, after spending decades in the New Orleans Police Department, where he served as chief for five years.
“Perhaps, police are not the best suited but, because those entities are either underfunded or not even built at all to handle it. To cut a budget today and to offset the work today to something that is not ready to handle it is my concern,” he added.
“I fully understand defunding, I fully understand shifting resources and funds to entities that need to be able to handle it that need the funding. My only concern is how– and I said this both publicly and privately– how and when?”
The budget was cut as of July 1, there are certain overtime dollars that we no longer have.
The bulk of the specific cuts made to the BPD’s budget came from overtime pay, which amounts to nearly $7 million in reductions. Overtime abuse within the department was placed under an unrelenting spotlight during the Gun Trace Task Force scandal in which members of that once elite unit bilked the city for several million dollars in fraudulent overtime pay over the years.
“If by chance we have to stop performing a service and hand it off to somebody else, well there is nobody else to take it at three in the morning, or at midnight that can get there in two minutes so that someone doesn’t commit harm to others or themselves,” said Harrison, who emphasizes under his leadership BPD has reduced overtime spending by about $5 million, “And crime did not go up,” he added. In fact, overall violent crime in Baltimore is down about 15 percent during Harrison’s time as commissioner, the city’s fifth commissioner in five years. Yet, the metric many in our city use to measure police efficacy and quality of life is the murder rate, which Harrison acknowledges remains, “persistently high.”
“It has become culturally accepted for people to think that police and police deployment strategies effect the murder rate; alone it does not. It requires programmatic solutions to offer people a pathway away (from homicide). That is how you reduce murder,” Harrison said.
“Baltimore has given 100 percent reliance on police and asked police and commissioners, `Why can’t you stop this?’ Harrison added. “The question is why have you let this go on this way for so long?”