Jeff Sessions wasn’t lying when he said the Trump administration would withhold money from cities that don’t comply with its immigration policies, though it’s still unclear if he understands how Baltimore’s prison system works.

In a letter dated Aug. 3 and addressed to Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, Department of Justice officials held a spot in the new Public Safety Partnership, a pilot program designed to help localities reduce violent crime, over the city’s head. The letter asks the city police department to reconsider its policies for detaining immigrants by agreeing to hold them for up to 48 hours so immigration agents can come through and question them – even if police don’t have a warrant for their arrest.

In an accompanying statement, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said that “by protecting criminals from immigration enforcement, cities and states with so-called ‘sanctuary’ policies make all of us less safe.”

He added, “by forcing police to go into more dangerous situations to re-arrest the same criminals, these policies endanger law enforcement officers more than anyone. The Department of Justice is committed to supporting our law enforcement at every level, and that’s why we’re asking ‘sanctuary’ jurisdictions to stop making their jobs harder.”

Baltimore leaders were surprised in June to learn that their city had not been included on a list of 12 jurisdictions tapped for the new Public Safety Partnership’s coordinated federal-state-local collaborations to fight violent crime. After all, the city had the second-highest murder rate in the country in 2016, second only to St. Louis, and isn’t seeing the killings drop so far this year.

The DOJ’s letter and Sessions’ statement may have provided the answer today. The letter noted Baltimore meets all the criteria for participation in the pilot program. The city “has levels of violence that exceed the national average…is ready to receive the intensive assistance the Department is prepared to provide, and … is taking steps to reduce its violent crime,” the letter said.

The missing puzzle piece, though, is that the city still isn’t locking up illegal immigrants (or suspected illegal immigrants) without first obtaining warrants. The letter asks that police prove they’re willing to comply with the Trump administration’s demands by Aug. 18.

What may be lost on the DOJ is that Baltimore police don’t actually operate the city’s jail. That authority falls under the State of Maryland, which has run the city jail since 1991.

Furthermore, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh has advised all local law enforcement agencies in the state to tread carefully when considering whether to detain immigrants without a warrant, or for extended periods of time. Frosh wrote in guidance issued in May that doing so may violate the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

In a responding statement, Davis said that he was unaware before today that the DOJ had any criteria for picking cities for the pilot program, or that there was even a formal selection process.

He also pushed back against Sessions’ implication that detaining immigrants without a warrant is a necessary function of administering justice: “Baltimore is a welcoming city. We do not enforce federal immigration laws. We do not ask people questions about their immigration status. We do, however, enforce the criminal laws of the State of Maryland and honor criminal arrest warrants obtained by federal law enforcement agencies.”

He added that the department is trying to train its officers how to best respond to the growing tide of violent crime plaguing the city “while maintaining respect for all people who call Baltimore home.”

The DOJ also sent letters to police officials in Albuquerque, San Bernardino, Calif., and Stockton, Calif. The agency said it may add other cities to the partnership program later this year.

At least now we know there’s a reason Baltimore wasn’t included in the first place.

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...