The Real Action Baltimore Needs in the Wake of Freddie Gray

Baltimore and Freddie Gray, police violence, racism, racial tensions in Baltimore

To say that Baltimore City Council member Bill Henry is frustrated with the response by the City of Baltimore and the State of Maryland to Freddie Gray’s death would be like saying Kim Kardashian is okay with a little publicity.

On Mother’s Day, Prince played a concert in Baltimore, the proceeds of which will benefit programs for the city’s youth. Too many mothers in Baltimore fear for their children every minute of every day. With good reason. Young black men are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than young white men. This from the public servants sworn to protect them. The problem is especially acute in Baltimore City. The death of Freddie Gray while in police custody is merely the latest in Baltimore’s long history of unrest, inequity, and tragedy amidst its considerable beauty and proudly diverse culture.

On the the Saturday before Mother’s Day, I showed up at Clark Burger for lunch with my college friend, Bill Henry, to talk about the last month in Baltimore. He is serving his eighth year on the Baltimore City Council, and his 4th District consists of roughly 43,000 constituents in 21,000 households. My intention was to get some answers to a few questions. What I got was a civics, economic, and political lesson I won’t soon forget.

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To understand Bill’s situation and position, it’s helpful to have this primer on the role and reach of Baltimore’s City Council members. Ultimately, it is quite subservient to the Mayor, which is not how it is in most major American cities. Please indulge my inner 8th-grade Civics teacher as I break this down.

THE CIVICS LESSON

Before 2003, Baltimore had six districts, each electing three members to the council, for eighteen members. The nineteenth member was the City Council President – an elected position, separate from the election of the other members (as opposed to the Council members choosing who will serve as Council President from among their members.) So, theoretically, a resident of Baltimore city had four members of the City Council to hold accountable for their actions on behalf of the city. Four voices out of nineteen on the Council belonged to each city resident.

For roughly the last decade, though, the city has been divided into fourteen smaller districts, each with only one Council member.  So, effectively, now each resident only has two voices out of fifteen on the City Council. A resident’s strength on the Council was cut nearly in half.  Instead of being able to appeal to four Council members out of nineteen, a resident can now only appeal to two Council members (including the Council President) out of fifteen about district issues that need attention.

So, not only is each Baltimore City resident more weakly represented, there is less incentive for Council members to compromise and coordinate the varied needs, since the Council’s format in the last decade is  structurally less collaborative by nature.

THE ECONOMICS LESSON

Bill Henry is convinced that the Charter of Baltimore City is “designed to frustrate good City Council members into running for higher office.” The Council’s impotence in economic matters affecting the city would seem to back him up on this.

Unlike other major cities, like New York, Baltimore’s City Council has a very limited role in the annual budget. The Board of Estimates drafts the city’s budget. The Board is comprised of five members, including the Mayor and two of the Mayor’s appointees. So, essentially, the draft budget comes from the Mayor.

Here’s the fun part. When the Board of Estimates sends the Council the draft budget, the council may only cut line items, not add to them. So if they collaborate and agree money should be MOVED from one area of the budget to another, they cannot act on it. They can only cut items, but if they’d like the funding restored to a different area of the budget, they cannot do it. They must lobby the mayor to have the cut funds added back into the budget where the Council feels it’s needed.

This has not happened in the last FIVE YEARS. Why not?

“[B]ecause there’s little incentive for the Mayor to change her mind – first, she can veto any cuts the Council makes that she doesn’t agree with and they need 12 out of 15 members to override that veto. And second, even if the Council over-rode her veto – which hasn’t in the last quarter-century – if the cuts stood, then the property tax rate would simply be reduced by whatever infinitesimal amount makes the budget come out even.” – Bill Henry

As a chunk, however, it might be of great use elsewhere. Like where the Council members have agreed, but are unable to fund because they cannot move money around, they can only cut money.  Rinse and Repeat.

Mr. Henry outlined very specifically his issues with the way money has been allocated in the last generation of Baltimore’s life. At the Council Meeting on May 4, 2015 — three weeks after Freddie Gray’s death — he highlighted the disproportionate spending between the police department and youth programs. This entire Baltimore Brew article is worth reading, but for the purposes of economics, here’s the breakdown.

At the meeting, he pointed out that back in 1991, Baltimore City “spent $37 million on the Department of Recreation and Parks, and we spent $165 million on the Police Department. A quarter of a century later, we have almost doubled the overall city government budget, we have almost tripled the police department’s budget, and we spend less today on recreation [centers] than we spent [then].”

THE POLITICS LESSON

What has any of this to do with the recent spotlight Freddie Gray’s death has brought to Baltimore?

To begin with, this is not simply a one-dimensional problem of a few police officers with anger issues. It is much more complex, comprehensive, and brutally inhumane than that. It’s also been around for much longer than people outside of Baltimore realize. Ask Venus Green – the 87-year-old black woman who was shoved against a wall, thrown over her couch, arms wrestled behind her and wrists cuffed as she tried to get help for her wounded grandson, who had been shot, and you might begin to get a sense of the depth of the dysfunction in the Baltimore City Police Department. Yet, what is the response of the politicians at the state level in Maryland? Three guesses.

(Hint. The answer begins with T-A-S-K and ends with F-O-R-C-E.)

To say this frustrates Bill Henry would be like saying Kim Kardashian is okay with a little publicity.

But here is how the law and politics work. Baltimore City cannot pass laws at the local level that affect the police department. Those laws must be enacted on a state level. Convening a task force to study law-enforcement-related issues?

“As if there hadn’t been half-dozen bills ALREADY introduced and heard in [the General Assembly’s] last session? There’s no need for further study. There’s a need for ACTING on THOSE PIECES of legislation,” insists Mr. Henry.

During the last session of Maryland’s General Assembly, city legislators proposed changes, which were even supported by the mayor. A delegation from Baltimore city went to Annapolis in an effort to effect those changes on a state level. According to Mr. Henry, the delegation was treated dismissively, bordering on disrespectfully. The delegation was treated with skepticism by legislators whose constituents do not have the same issues with police that Baltimore City does.

Further complicating the city’s ability to encourage change on a state-wide level is the fact that Maryland’s Fraternal Order of Police fights changes that address only one subdivision of the state. The reasoning is that the FOP doesn’t want a “patchwork quilt of how officers are treated that is different from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.” Yet, Mr. Henry rightly points out that Baltimore city is the “only subdivision with 3000 police officers, and that is struggling with this level of disconnect between the police force and the communities they’re supposed to be serving and protecting.”

REAL ACTION

Up until this point, I have been paraphrasing and organizing our over two-hour-long discussion into (hopefully) digestable chunks that lead up to this last, most important section of this entire piece. From here on, however, I am going to let the Honorable Bill Henry have the last word about what, in his view, would have constituted real action in the wake of this most recent tragedy born of police brutality in his beloved city:

“REAL ACTION? Real action would have been the Governor or legislature calling a special session RIGHT NOW to act on legislation [that has already been proposed], instead of waiting until mid-January 2016…

“Real action would have been the Mayor taking the opportunity to amend her draft budget to reduce spending on police and use that money to FULLY FUND the other side of public safety, which is giving young people safe and meaningful things to be doing. Youth development is not a priority in conflict with public safety – it IS public safety.”

Here’s hoping people with the power to enact real change are listening.

Aliza Worthington grew up in Brooklyn, NY, and now lives in Baltimore. She began writing in 2009 at the age of 40. Sometimes her writing follows The Seinfeld Model of “no learning, no hugging.” Other times it involves lots of both. She blogs about Life, Liberty and Happiness at “The Worthington Post.” Her work also appears in Purple Clover, and before that, in Catonsville Patch and Kveller. She has been featured in the Community Spotlight section of Daily Kos under the username “Horque.” Her piece for The Broad Side, Leaving Gender at the Door, was chosen as a BlogHer Voice of the Year in 2013. Follow her on Twitter at @AlizaWrites.

Image via Wikimedia Commons/CC License/Kathleen Conklin

  • Lynne Childress

    Thank you for this. I am a Baltimore native who now lives in Annapolis, but I have friends and family there still. The issues there (and nationally) hurt my heart. I am the wife of a black hisband and mother of a black son. But I love that this gentleman had tangible ideas. Thanks for sharing.

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