Photo by Elvert Barnes, via Flickr

Elected officials and community leaders are calling on Baltimore residents to vote “yes” Tuesday on ballot Question H, which asks whether or not to “establish a Baltimore City Police Department.”

The measure is not about creating a new police department, as might be implied by its wording, but about putting Baltimore in charge of its own police force. For the last 162 years, state lawmakers in Annapolis, not the Baltimore City Council, have wielded the legislative authority to regulate the city’s police department.

Currently, Baltimore is the only jurisdiction in Maryland unable to pass laws concerning its own police department. That could change if voters approve Question H.

The wording of ballot Question H could confuse voters, but supporters say the measure would give the city full legislative control over the Baltimore Police Department after 162 years as a state agency. Photo by Sapna Bansil.

Among the supporters of local control is Mayor Brandon Scott, who lobbied in 2021 to pass state legislation that put the issue before Baltimore voters this year.

“This is something that Mayor Scott has been working on for at least a decade as a councilperson, as the council president, now as mayor,” said Lauron Perez, a staff member with the Mayor’s Office of Government Relations.

“The mayor believes that the council should have the right to legislate and offer policies for BPD because the council, of course, represents the general public. That’s something that he’s always believed in,” she continued.

Some forms of local control are already in place. For example, the mayor gained the authority to appoint a police commissioner in 1976.

Supporters, however, have stressed that full legislative oversight is necessary for the city to move forward on a host of police reforms. A “yes” vote on Question H could permit the city council to consider measures such as requiring body cameras, restricting facial recognition technology and regulating use of force.

Speaking at an outreach event at CASA de Maryland, co-chair of the Local Control Advisory Board Ashiah Parker (center) makes a case for attendees to vote “yes” on city ballot Question H, which would restore local control of the Baltimore Police Department. Photo by Sapna Bansil.

“The only thing standing in between all of us doing what’s necessary [on police reform] is this vote for the amendment,” said LeAnna Harrison, a research and policy analyst at the immigrant advocacy group CASA de Maryland.

“Without local control, we can’t specifically enact those changes at the local level. We have to always appeal to the General Assembly at the state level. Once we have our own local control, we will be able to enact those department-specific policies.”

To garner support for passing Question H, a group of government officials and community leaders has performed a series of outreach efforts consisting of public meetings, door-to-door canvassing and social media posts.

Members of the group, known as the Local Control Advisory Board, include representatives from CASA, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and No Boundaries, a West Baltimore community organization. Scott, along with state Sen. Cory McCray and Del. Stephanie Smith, are among the elected officials on the board.

Attendees and organizers of a bilingual community outreach event at CASA de Maryland hold up signs in support of ballot Question H, which would transition legislative oversight of the Baltimore Police Department from Annapolis to the Baltimore City Council. Photo by Sapna Bansil.

Established last year to develop recommendations about transferring control and draft the language of the ballot measure, the advisory board has made community outreach one of its main objectives. The group lobbied the public to vote “yes” on Question H during recent events hosted by CASA and Morgan State University.

“In the beginning … one of the things that was brought up and agreed on by everybody on the board was that we needed to make sure that the public were truly educated on the ballot measure,” said Perez, a staffer on the advisory board. “It is important for everything that we do, especially for this question, that we engage the public. We don’t want anybody to feel like we have ignored them. We don’t want the public to feel like we haven’t done our due diligence in interacting with them.”

The board’s outreach work is not expected to end with the anticipated passage of Question H. After the November election, the group plans to solicit community feedback to develop a specific model for what local control will look like.

“I feel optimistic that [Question H] is going to pass, but what I want for the community is after it passes, we work together to make sure that the police department has the correct form of control,” said Ashiah Parker, co-chair of the Local Control Advisory Board and executive director of No Boundaries.

If approved by voters, local control could go into effect as early as Jan. 1, 2023.

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