Photo by Elvert Barnes, via Flickr

For 159 years, the Baltimore Police Department has remained uniquely under the State of Maryland’s control, subject almost entirely to local laws set by state legislators rather than the Baltimore City Council. And that’ll now remain true for at least one more year.

A bill sponsored by Del. Talmadge Branch (45th District) to bring BPD under the city’s purview passed the House unanimously in March, but has stalled in the Senate due to concerns from city senators about whether it actually does it what it says it does, as well as worries about increased city liability for police misconduct lawsuits.

Today, a coalition of advocates who’ve pushed the bill with some—not all—of Baltimore’s delegation in Annapolis announced they’re delaying until 2020 while they negotiate further on the bill.

“While it is deeply disappointing that instability in Baltimore’s current leadership killed the momentum to restore local control of Baltimore’s police department to Baltimore residents, the truth is that accountability would have been improved by the bill,” reads an embittered statement from the Campaign for Justice, Safety and Jobs, a coalition supported by the Open Society Institute-Baltimore that includes the ACLU and around 30 other groups.

“Thankfully, the movement to realize local control is stronger than ever,” they continued more optimistically. “We have now secured commitments from the Senators who withheld support for the bill to work with us to address their concerns. Baltimore residents can finally have hope that control of their police department will return to them during the 2020 General Assembly.”

While the bill, which passed 137-0 in the House, had the backing of Sens. Jill Carter (41st District), Mary Washington (43rd) and Shirley Nathan-Pulliam (44th ), colleagues Antonio Hayes (40th), Cory McCray (45th) and Bill Ferguson (46th) were worried about its scope and potential effects on Baltimore’s liability in lawsuits against BPD—which is to say, that the city would be on the hook for even more in payouts without the state’s “sovereign immunity” from lawsuits.

Ferguson, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday, told The Sun last week that the bill “does not do what it is purported it does.” That’s because it only amends a few words of state law, he said, without addressing language in the state’s Public Local Laws of Baltimore. For example, he said, it would need amendments that would cede some of the police commissioner’s powers to the City Council and mayor’s office; without those, the commissioner would wield power that the council couldn’t temper without, once again, having to keep going back to Annapolis to request changes.

Molly Amster of Jews United for Justice, one of the groups making up the Campaign for Justice, Safety and Jobs, said advocates had been pushing lawmakers to amend the bill’s language since late March, so as not to see it stalled in the final week of the legislative session as it currently has.

“Our argument all session was that if the bill doesn’t do what you think it’s gonna do, then you should amend it,” she said.

On the matter of legal liability, City Solicitor Andre Davis has maintained that giving the city control over its police force would have little effect on payouts for cop-related lawsuits. In a March 28 email to city senators, which Davis shared with Baltimore Fishbowl, he included a table of the aggregate amounts that Baltimore has paid for police misconduct settlements every fiscal year since 2009. He said the amounts have been “largely stable”– save for 2016, when the city awarded a $6.4 million settlement to the family of Freddie Gray.

Aggregate settlement amounts for lawsuits filed against BPD, fiscal 2009-2019. Table via City Solicitor Andre Davis.

The table indicates total settlements have fluctuated between $3.2 million and $5.4 million since 2009, with an exception for 2016 when settlements totaled nearly $9 million including the Gray family lawsuit.

And in a separate letter to McCray on March 24, Davis wrote the city already covers payouts from its taxpayer-financed general fund. “Nothing in the return to local control will expand the bases for liability against officers or the City itself, so the scope of liability will be unchanged,” he wrote, adding, “When officers make mistakes and cause harm, the City taxpayers will pay up.”

Davis is pushing back against a point from a fiscal and policy note on Branch’s legislation that says as written, “the bill allows direct lawsuits against the city and BPD” for constitutional violations by officers, “and it is reasonable to conclude that the city may be exposed to significantly higher damage awards.”

But not everyone’s buying it. In a letter responding to Davis this past Tuesday, McCray said that “in a city that has struggled to provide resources day-to-day”—he cited examples of lacking funds for tree-branch trimming, pothole filling and illegal dumping enforcement in neighborhoods—”any change to the city’s liability could be discernable.”

He asked also for assurances that Baltimore’s consent decree requiring reforms for BPD won’t need to be renegotiated or amended if the city is given the reigns.

“Sometimes these decisions will not be popular, but necessary for the longevity of our great City of Baltimore,” McCray said of his decision not to support Branch’s bill. “I am looking forward to a more robust conversation during the interim.”

To McCray’s point about the consent decree, Amster asserted, “it wouldn’t need to be renegotiated.” She noted the city’s Community Oversight Task Force for the consent decree process actually endorsed this change in its public report about how to boost police accountability.

“The BPD will never be fully accountable to its residents until full control of the department is returned to the city,” the report said on p. 39.

This session was notable in that the mayor, city solicitor and Baltimore City Council members and president all supported the proposal. Past efforts have failed, as in 2017 when then-bill sponsor Del. Curt Anderson withdrew the legislation due to concerns about payouts for lawsuits.

Anderson made that call two years ago after getting a letter from Maryland’s Office of the Attorney General that said Baltimore “would be significantly exposed” to higher settlement amounts with local BPD control. But this time around, the attorney general’s counsel deferred to Davis’ forecasts about the financial impact in a letter dated March 26.

This year, Councilman Brandon Scott testified at a March 14 House Environment and Transportation committee that bringing BPD under city control could save time for General Assembly members. Every year, Scott said, city officials must go to Annapolis to support bills tweaking governance of the department, such as the newly passed legislation calling for BPD to redraw its dated district boundaries every 10 years.

These matters, he said, “quite frankly are beneath the level of importance that you should be discussing here in the General Assembly.”

The city deserves control of its own police department, he argued. He noted that that with the City of St. Louis now in control of its police department since 2013, Baltimore’s is “the only major city police department that is not under local control.”

In a follow-up message on Thursday, Scott told Baltimore Fishbowl, “I appreciate the members of the House of Delegates, particularly Delegate Branch, for passing legislation. I also deeply appreciate our state senators for their honest concerns about the impact on our city.”

This story has been updated, and corrected to reflect the proper spelling for Molly Amster’s name.

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...