Maryland State Sen. Cory McCray (D-Baltimore City) speaks during Judicial Proceedings Committee hearing on Thursday, discussing his bill to change the Baltimore Police Department from a state agency to a city agency. Baltimore City is the only jurisdiction in Maryland that does not have direct control over its police department. Photo courtesy of YouTube.

Baltimore City is the only jurisdiction in Maryland without direct control over its own police force, but a new bill sponsored by State Sen. Cory McCray (D-Baltimore City) could change that.

Senate Bill 786 would transfer the Baltimore Police Department from a state agency to a city agency, dependent on the Baltimore City Council passing a charter amendment to make that change and city voters approving that charter amendment via a ballot question.

Testifying during the Maryland Senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee hearing on Thursday, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said restoring the city’s control over BPD will help provide a pathway to racial justice, police accountability and representative democracy.

“We are now living in a moment when we have the opportunity to make real change in a new way,” Scott said. “Local control paired with statewide police reform efforts being considered by this body, in addition to our consent decree, will go a long way to ensure meaningful transformation.”

Scott said Baltimore has been paying for the lack of control over BPD for more 160 years since the state took over the city’s police department in 1860.

McCray’s bill also would establish an advisory board comprising Baltimore’s mayor; the Baltimore police commissioner; state lawmakers; city officials; a representative from the Baltimore Police Monitoring Team; and three members with experience in criminal justice, police reform or community policing.

Zainab Chaudry, Maryland director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and Caylin Young, public policy director for the ACLU of Maryland, both said their organizations support the bill with certain amendments, including having more community members on the advisory board. They also support an amendment to move the ballot question from the 2024 election to 2022 election to have the transfer of control occur in 2023 instead of 2025 as the bill currently stipulates.

Chaudry, who was born and raised in Baltimore, said she has experienced firsthand problems with BPD.

“Growing up, I personally witnessed and experienced the harmful impact of mistrust in law enforcement officers in my own neighborhood, prompted by the lack of transparency, accountability and reliability. It hindered community safety and effective policing models,” she said.

Currently, many changes to the city’s police force must go through the General Assembly, which meets for 90 days each year and is “far removed from the city of Baltimore,” Chaudry said.

State Sen. Bob Cassilly (R-Harford County) asked what actions the city would be able to take with BPD as a city agency that it cannot currently with the police department as a state agency.

McCray said the General Assembly in 2019 passed a bill to require the Baltimore police commissioner to redraw the department’s city districts every 10 years based on census data.

The commissioner already had that ability, but the process is now required by law. Under his bill, McCray said such a change would be under the purview of the city council and would not require a move by the state legislature.

State Sen. Charles E. Sydnor III (D-Baltimore City) said the lack of local control over BPD had negative consequences for one of his relatives. When police officers mistakenly searched the relative’s vehicle instead of the vehicle they had meant to search, they “tore it up,” Sydnor said.

The relative attempted to sue Baltimore City, who, after a “somewhat delayed” response, informed him that the complaint must be filed with the state because BPD is a state agency.

“He had no time to do a timely filing with the state and he was left with the bag,” Sydnor said.

When the issue of transferring control of BPD to the city was proposed previously, State Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City) said she was initially skeptical after the city council had “routinely over many years approved every single police commissioner, every single budget and every single supplemental budget.”

“My initial thoughts were ‘Why should we entrust this group to be accountable?” she said.

But Carter said over the years she and her colleagues have been met with “such incredible resistance and skepticism” by fellow state lawmakers when they have proposed changes to the police department, including having more police officers live in Baltimore City, changing the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, and improving transparency and access to police officers’ disciplinary records.

Now, Carter believes making BPD an agency of Baltimore City is the right move as there will be “no more blaming the state” for issues with the police department.

“This trilogy of things will now put Baltimore City in a position where there’s no more excuses because all accountability will lie on the city of Baltimore for everything, and I think that’s a good thing,” she said.

Baltimore City Solicitor Jim Shea said the city will not have to pay more for civil judgment liability if BPD becomes a city agency because the city already pays “to the full extent that it could be liable in civil judgments” under state and federal law.

Scott said restoring control over BPD to the city is a “top priority” of his administration.

“With increasing calls for police transparency and accountability, now more than ever Baltimore City must regain the authority to oversee its police department,” he said.

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Marcus Dieterle

Marcus Dieterle is the managing editor of Baltimore Fishbowl. He returned to Baltimore in 2020 after working as the deputy editor of the Cecil Whig newspaper in Elkton, Md. He can be reached at marcus@baltimorefishbowl.com...