DeRay Mckesson. Photo courtesy OSI Baltimore.
DeRay Mckesson. Photo courtesy OSI Baltimore.

The police budget, city school police, and subsidies for developers were front and center at Wednesday’s mayoral forum at West Baltimore’s Union Baptist Church– as candidates answered questions focusing on criminal justice and human rights.

Eleven mayoral candidates including Democrats State Senator Catherine Pugh, City Councilmen Carl Stokes and Nick Mosby, Elizabeth Embry, DeRay Mckesson, Cindy Walsh, Calvin Young, and Patrick Guitierrez, Green Party members Joshua Harris and Emanual McCray, and Republicans Larry Wardlow and Chancellor Torbit, attended.

Union Baptist’s pastor Alvin Hathaway set the tone for the night, saying his church, long connected to the Civil Rights movement, was an appropriate location for the forum because it was the “birthplace of liberation in Baltimore City.”

The citywide mayoral forum, the second sponsored by the Open Society Institute, Associated Black Charities, and City Paper, lasted more than two hours and was moderated by City Paper Editor-in-Chief Karen Houppert and Lester Spence, author and professor at Johns Hopkins University.

Candidates had ninety seconds each to respond to six questions. (Watch the entire forum, here.) Noticeably absent from the evening’s discussion were two mayoral Democratic candidates: former Mayor Sheila Dixon and David Warnock.

An Open Society spokesman said they both had committed to attending the event but ultimately had scheduling conflicts.

Cut the Police Budget?

The night’s first question was about the cost of Baltimore City’s police department.

Spence asked the mayoral hopefuls if they would rein in the city’s massive nearly $500 million annual police budget (which has risen from $145 million in 1990) for a city of about 625,000 residents. And if so, how.

Pugh said she would cut the police budget and redirect some funds to job creation and on-the-job training.

Mosby noted that only about $170,000 of the $500 million police budget went to community policing.  More spending on community policing efforts, he said, would help reduce crime and the need for more police.

Embry’s reply focused on the “unbelievable amount” of money the police spend on overtime because of staff shortages. She said improved police recruitment and more hiring could reduce the costs.

Gutierrez said he would first address the budget by calling for a performance and financial audit of the entire city police department.

McCray said changing the city’s economy and redistributing wealth would reduce crime and said the city should spend money to encourage officers to live in Baltimore.

Police in City Schools?

The next questions focused on Baltimore City School Police.

Houppert referenced the recent assault on a student by school police officers at the REACH Partnership high school. (The two officers have been charged with assault and misconduct.)

She asked the candidates whether they felt school police need to be in city schools at all — and if so, whether they need to be armed.

Houppert then asked if they believed the Department of Justice federal civil rights probe of the Baltimore City Police Department (initiated after the death of Freddie Gray and the resulting unrest) should be expanded to include Baltimore City School Police.

Walsh said she didn’t support police officers in city schools, but would support trained volunteers and hired security staff.

Wardlow said his son was beaten at his school a few months ago and understands the need for school police.

But at the same time, he said that police departments citywide had misused their power, and he supported expanding the DOJ probe to include not only city school police but housing authority police and transit police as well.

Harris, Mckesson, Pugh, and Gutierrez supported expanding the DOJ probe to include city schools police– Mckesson and Gutierrez said it should include the Baltimore city police internal affairs division.

Embry told the audience she supports the police in Baltimore City schools but in a “reimagined role,” where they are less aggressive and confrontational and serve as “resources” to students.  She said she would like school police to wear body cameras.

Embry said she would also like to expand  the DOJ probe to include school police, but expressed “concern about how long [the probe] is taking already.”

“As mayor, I want to sit down with the DOJ and help move the process forward. We need to learn and implement those changes  quickly.”

Drug Treatment

Given the failure of the “war on drugs,” and talk about “treatment instead of jail,” the moderators asked the candidates how they would provide more drug treatment to Baltimore City addicts.

Houppert told the candidates to“go beyond platitudes” and give concrete examples. The candidates, many referencing addiction and recovery in their families, offered up various strategies.

Harris said his plan would include safe injection sites throughout Baltimore to help with harm reduction. “I’ve seen it work firsthand when we lived in Oslo, Norway,” he said.

Young said he also supported safe injection sites. He added that bringing drug education into city schools (with telemedicine via the city’s health department) for students who don’t have insurance could help prevent the next generation of addicts.

Torbit, who arrived midway through the forum,  said drug addiction is a disease and ought to be treated as such.

Guitierrez called for consolidating drug treatment resources in one location “so addicts don’t have to travel all over the city” and supported mobilizing drug treatment vans.

Walsh said she opposed methadone but would treat addiction as a public health problem and bring public health services to every community.

Wardlow offered a different approach: more faith-based drug treatment and drug prevention programs.

“If you fund the faith-based organizations, I guarantee you get less drug users,” he said.

Mosby said he would establish more drug stabilization centers and provide on-demand treatment close to communities where addicts live.

Baltimore’s Public vs. Corporate Agenda

The next question concerned subsidies to developers and their impact on city residents as a whole.

Spence said that Tax Increment Financing (TIF) has become the “go-to vehicle for economic development” in Baltimore, but noted that the city would be hard pressed to show how TIF has significantly  improved quality of life in low-income communities, such as Sandtown – where the city spends $17 million annually to incarcerate its residents.

He said the city’s public agenda and corporate agenda had arguably gone “hand in hand” as Baltimore’s incarceration rates have increased.

Spence asked the candidates “Where should Baltimore’s public agenda diverge from its corporate agenda,” specifying Sagamore Development’s recent request for a $535 million TIF for the Port Covington redevelopment.

Wardlow’s response was cautious: “You invest in the community first. Once we see you invest, then we’ll give you a tax break,” he said.

He cited the Baltimore Development Corporation’s recent forgivable loan to Amazon for supplemental transportation funds. (Amazon said MTA’s bus service was not reliable, and the company had to provide its own shuttle to get some Amazon staff to work.)

Gutierrez expressed reservations.

Referencing the BDC’s recent closed meeting to discuss the Sagamore TIF, he said was disappointed with negotiations.

“They need to slow down. The city has leverage here. That deal is out there. We need to make sure we get it,” he said.

Pugh told the audience that employing Cherry Hill residents and growing small businesses in Southwest Baltimore, near Port Covington, was essential to supporting the TIF.

Embry said the Port Covington project has “potential” to bring in jobs and revenue the city hasn’t seen in a long time.

“It’s easy to vilify TIFs, but TIFs were used to build Mondawmin Mall. The potential is great, we just need a city government that is capable of negotiating and demanding what we need as a city.”  She called on city government to have more backbone and rigor.

She said the city needed to “work with Under Armour, but also hold them accountable.”

Keep People Out of Criminal Justice System

The final question of the evening centered on Baltimore’s high rate of recidivism.

Given that Maryland has a 40 percent recidivism rate, (the national rate is 43.3 percent) Houppert asked candidates how they would keep people from returning to the criminal justice system.

Harris said as mayor his focus would be on creating job opportunities and breaking the cycle of offenders re-offending.

Mckesson, a former educator, said Baltimore’s youth recidivism rate is actually upward of 70 percent – and the city’s adult “recidivism rate is so high, they don’t even publish it by municipality.”

He said literacy is key to solving the problem. It is essential to employability and getting a job was vital to staying out of jail.

Gutierrez told the audience that as mayor, he would focus more on job training, so returning citizens have a skill.

“That’s the number one reason people return to prison. They can’t get a job, and they return to things that got them locked up in the first place,” he said.

Gutierrez also stressed the need for supervision of ex-offenders.

“We really need to make sure we’re keeping an eye on our folks…Some of that might include funding their relocation to a different part of the city. Folks seem to go back to the same neighborhoods where they got in trouble in the first place.

If offenders have a job and the opportunity to relocate, you’ll see those recidivism rates drop significantly.”