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Amid Omicron Surge, Baltimore Police Got Even More Money

Above Photo: A Baltimore City police helicopter flies over Camden Yards on April 15, 2021, in Baltimore, Maryland. All players are wearing the number 42 in honor of Jackie Robinson Day. Mitchell Layton / Getty Images.

New helicopters, more funding for strategies whose efficacy critics have questioned, and expensive payouts because of police corruption continue as Maryland’s governor claims police are being ‘defunded.’

As the omicron variant surged into the new year, pushing statewide infection rates in Maryland past 30% and sending Baltimore City residents scrambling for COVID-19 tests and N95 masks, Baltimore City spent more money on the Baltimore Police Department.

On Dec. 23, Baltimore City’s Board Of Estimates approved $18 million for three new police helicopters. The three new helicopters will replace the four old helicopters purchased in 2011 for $9.5 million, Baltimore Brew reported.

It was the latest burst of additional funding since the Baltimore City Council voted to give the Baltimore Police a $28 million budget increase back in June 2021. In September, $6.5 million in revenue from red light cameras, supposedly allotted to make streets safer for motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians, was instead given to the police. In November, the city approved $759,500 to continue a contract with ShotSpotter, the AI-based sound detecting software that alerts 911 when it believes it has registered gunshots. The technology’s efficacy has been much-debated, and despite vocal opposition to the funding—including from activist DeRay Mckesson—it was approved.

“I am the biggest skeptic of ShotSpotter,” Mayor Brandon Scott said. “But saying that and also knowing that this is the final renewal for this contract and, as I have already directed CitiStat to do an in-depth analysis of this tool… This really, for me, is about getting to people who are the victims of gun violence who no one is calling for.”

Since 2018, the total amount of money spent by Baltimore on ShotSpotter is a little over $3 million.

While all of that additional police funding was approved, Maryland Republican Gov. Larry Hogan announced his “refund the police” initiative. It is a cynical political strategy; Hogan has persistently claimed that the police in his state have been “defunded” even though their budgets have increased.

“The reality is that our police are underfunded and under attack,” Hogan said back in October. “To reverse the tide of rising crime, we need to stop demonizing and sabotaging the dedicated men and women who risk their lives every single day to keep the rest of us safe. We cannot defund the police, we need to refund the police.”

Hogan’s initiative, he said, would provide $150 million more to Maryland law enforcement as well as neighborhood safety grants, victims services, and money for Marylanders who provide tips that lead to arrests (this week, Hogan announced that the additional police funding will reach $500 million over the next three years).

In December, $96,000 was approved to be awarded to four Harlem Park residents whose constitutional rights were violated during an illegal lockdown of their West Baltimore neighborhood in 2017 after Baltimore City Police Officer Sean Suiter was found shot there.

There is also the devastating story of Malcolm Bryant, whose family last week was approved to be awarded $8 million dollars for his wrongful conviction. Bryant served 17 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. He was released in 2016, with assistance from the Maryland Innocence Project. He died the next year.

The $8 million approved by the city is the result of a Bryant family lawsuit against the Baltimore Police Department, homicide detective William F. Ritz, and Barry Verger, a forensic analyst. The Bryant family’s lawyers alleged that evidence that could have shown Bryant was innocent was withheld, including physical evidence that pointed to another suspect and an eyewitness whose testimony contradicted that of the only eyewitness who was called to testify in court.

Earlier this week, Baltimore City Council also voted in favor of the Supplementary Criminal Apprehension and Conviction Fund, which would increase the amount of money that can be rewarded to a resident whose information leads to the arrest or conviction of someone suspected of committing a crime.

The $100,000 in additional funding to Metro Crimestoppers, Baltimore City Councilperson Isaac “Yitzy” Schliefer has argued, is needed because the Baltimore City Police Department’s clearance rate on homicides is so low.

The Baltimore Police clearance rate for homicides is around 40%, lower than the average national homicide clearance rate. In 2019, NPR described the effectiveness of rewards-for-tips as “not wildly productive.”

A bill from State Senator Jill Carter could address some of the city’s exorbitant spending on police. The Law Enforcement Pension Reform bill (Senate Bill 141) sponsored by Carter would make it so “that law enforcement officers are subject to forfeiture of benefits from the State Retirement and Pension System or a local system when a law enforcement officer is found guilty of, pleads guilty to, or enters a plea of nolo contendere to a qualifying crime; providing for the processes and procedures to implement a forfeiture of benefits; and generally relating to the forfeiture of pension benefits.”

Last year’s bundled police reform bill that slowly moved through the statehouse had a provision that would have done what Carter’s bill intends to do, but it was removed before the bill passed.

Baltimore City Comptroller Bill Henry has come out in support of the bill, putting it on his legislative priority list for 2022, he announced in a press release.

“The Board of Estimates has approved over $14.1 million in law enforcement related settlements over the actions of police officers who were found guilty of crimes and fired,” Henry said. “We are paying out claims for these officers’ wrongdoings—yet the same officers are allowed to keep their pensions. If the City is paying for your crimes, we should have the ability to go after you for damages—specifically, your pension.”

As for those three helicopters worth $18 million, Baltimore Brew reported earlier this week that, according to police, buying three helicopters was a sound, affordable decision, actually.

“We are financing three helicopters. You might ask, well, you now have four helicopters, why are we only considering three?” Shallah Graham, chief financial officer for the Baltimore Police, told the Brew. “We want to be financially responsible. We know it’s tough times right now in the economy.”

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