Baltimore's New Mayor Rethinks Police Funding
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now we'd like to talk about defunding the police. That was one of the most significant and provocative ideas to emerge from the wave of racial justice protests that took place throughout the country last year. The slogan speaks to a call to reallocate money away from policing per se to other kinds of interventions to address ideas that many people believe contribute to violence and instability in communities, such as mental health challenges and addiction. It was, as we said, a provocative idea. Some Democrats argue it's just common sense to move away from strategies that have not worked. But others found the slogan politically toxic.
So what about now? A recent survey conducted by Boston University's Initiative on Cities showed little political support among city mayors around the country. The survey found that only 12% of mayors favor taking funds away from police departments, and that's despite the fact that a majority of the respondents were Democrats.
So we wanted to talk about this a bit more with a mayor who has embraced the idea. Brandon Scott was sworn in as Baltimore's new mayor last month, and he is with us now. Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for coming on. Congratulations on your victory.
BRANDON SCOTT: Thank you, Michel. Thank you for having me. And I hope you and your family and all your listeners are healthy and safe as we deal with this pandemic.
MARTIN: Well, thank you for that as well. And you as well. And, you know, to that point, I mean, we know that police reform isn't the only item on your agenda. I'm sure managing Baltimore's ongoing COVID response takes up a lot of your time these days. And, you know, just as we are speaking right this minute, you know, there was the first major snowstorm in years to hit the sort of northeast, so I'm sure you're dealing with that. So where would you say the issue of police reform falls on your to-do list as mayor right now? And how do you frame it?
SCOTT: Well, Michel, for us here in Baltimore - and I think this is a unique position where we're at and a unique position for me. I'm a son of Baltimore. I was born here. I grew up in Park Heights, the neighborhood that the world descends on for the Preakness horse race. And every other day of the year when I was growing up, I wasn't even seen as human by my own city government, right? I lived in a neighborhood where dozens of people would die every year. I saw my first shooting before my 10th birthday. I only ever had overpolicing or under-policing, never the right amount of community-based policing. I went to schools with no heat and air. I saw my friends' families deal with addiction and all the things that happened. And throughout all of that, the way that our city was budgeted was that our police department got the lion's share. And Baltimore has been one of the most violent cities in our country as long as I've been alive.
So fast-forward to me being on the city council. And long before it was a talking point - right? - there's video even in a documentary, "Charm City," put on by PBS that folks can see I was talking about how violence is a public health issue and not talking about it through this lens of defund, per se, but really about what I say is reimagining what public safety means for everyone.
MARTIN: So before you were mayor, you were the city council president. And last year, under your leadership, the council did vote to reduce...
MARTIN: ...The police budget by $22 million. And you said just something that you said here today. You said, gone are the days where we try to police our way out of our problems because the strategy hasn't worked, and it will not work. So where does that money go?
SCOTT: When you think about what - you go back and look at what we did last year. We here in Baltimore - right? - they were allowing most of that money that we had there, which is unallocated money, waiting for federal grants for them to come in. No business in the country is going to allow one of their areas of their business to just unallocate (ph) $15 million just for the sake of doing it.
What we are in the process of doing now is putting together how we can actually responsibly over time reimagine the city's budget to decrease our dependency on policing. That means putting the responsibility to respond to things on the people that should be responding to them, which costs less. It costs less - just numbers - it costs less for a mental health person to deal with a mental health or substance abuse issue than it does for a police officer. Then that money can be reallocated somewhere else.
But we have to do that in Baltimore in a responsible way, where we're not running afoul of our consent decree. That, for us, mandates increased funding and policing in our police department in many ways in order to hold them accountable for the things and atrocities that happened in the past, never allow them to happen in the future, two, that does not ignore the violent crime issues that we have in the city, and three, does it in a way that honors community value and input so that we can have this be done the right way.
This is not going to happen overnight. I will make sure that I am the person starting that conversation and leading that work so that Baltimore in the near future gets to a better balanced budget in a responsible way.
MARTIN: And how do you address the kind of visceral reaction that many people have to this? As we said, you know, that slogan itself - I mean, there were members of Congress who complained what they could - centrist members of Congress, or so-called centrists, or that - you know, they may or may not embrace that term themselves - but who are in sort of swing districts that are competitive for Democrats where they feel like the slogan itself is politically toxic. They say just the - just talking about it in that way. So that - but that speaks to something sort of - it speaks to something visceral that people have when you talk about defunding the police.
Now, you just said yourself, Baltimore has been one of this country's most violent cities. There were 300 homicides in Baltimore last year. And, in fact, it's my understanding that just yesterday, you were - you went to go to a scene of a homicide. So how do you get people to think about it differently so that it doesn't kind of push all their buttons of feeling like, well, wait a minute, you know, if you've already got a violent problem, then how are you going to remove the police from it?
SCOTT: Yeah, I think it's a couple of ways. One, the reality that I can say that many mayors can't because it's different when you've lived it, right? It's different because I can say quite open, frankly and bluntly, that, hey, in 1993, when I was 9 years old, the city had 350-something murders, and our police department was our largest funded agency. No different than 2020. We have been beating our heads on the wall the same way.
And again, this is coming from someone who supports constitutional-focused policing. But it's never been about these mass arrests - never. It's always been about who. The violence is carried out by the same people over and over again. And instead of wasting hundreds of millions of dollars on focusing on everyone that looks like me, we should be intensely focused on those who are committing the violence. And in a city that has no gun stores, where 70% of the weapons are trafficked in, focus on those individuals who are trafficking weapons, and we need the full weight of the federal government to help us do that because you and I both know some young man in West Baltimore who gets arrested for murder or robbery or shooting someone with a gun who should do his time and pay this debt to society without a question who lives in a city where he cannot even travel by public transportation to the other side of the city in an efficient way didn't go to West Virginia or Virginia or Pennsylvania or Texas or Florida or any of these places where the guns that end up on the streets of Baltimore come from. Someone brought it here, and we need to treat those people in a more strict way as well.
MARTIN: So before we let you go, you know, obviously, your COVID response is a priority at the city and the state and the federal level. This is the kind of thing that, you know, no jurisdiction can do by itself, even though, you know, over the last, say, year or so, many people have sort of been made to feel that they did. So what about now? I mean, do you think just when it comes to this issue of addressing the violence in your city, do you feel that - what is it that the federal government could do to support you? And are you asking them to do it?
SCOTT: Yeah, there's many things they can do. One, the federal government has to - I don't know how many more kids have to die in a school, I don't know how many more Black and brown kids have to die on the street in this country for them to treat violence and really treat guns in a more serious way. People - if two guns end up in the hands of people who should not have them, then people end up dead. They have to start to treat that more seriously and bring the full weight of federal government to deal with that, specifically around gun trafficking.
Also, the federal government itself can invest in different ways to deal with violence, right? We know they can print money no one else can, right? Think about how it would mean if the federal government was investing in violence interrupter programs directly at mass scale, if the federal government was investing in robbery diversion programs for young people who get caught up early on in life. There's many, many things.
You know, I have conversations with them about it all the time. These kind of conversations and what I had with my near, dear - God rest his soul - Congressman Cummings continuously and that we're having with our delegation now about how now, in this new Biden-Harris administration that we are all extremely grateful for, how now it's time for the federal government to get involved with curing cities, Baltimore and beyond, with reducing violence.
MARTIN: That was the mayor of Baltimore, Brandon Scott. Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for speaking with us. I do hope we'll speak again and you'll let us know how things are going.
SCOTT: Yes, ma'am. Thank you so much. I'm looking forward to it.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDISH GAMBINO SONG, "REDBONE")
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