‘Refund’ the police? With crime high, debate rises in Maryland.

Brian Witte/AP/File
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, speaks at a news conference on Aug. 5, 2021, in Annapolis, Maryland. In October, he announced a $150-million plan to “refund the police,” two-thirds of which would go to police aid and salary and one-third to accountability programs, neighborhood safety, and victim services.

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A year after widespread calls to defund or abolish the police, those options are increasingly unpopular, and the focus is shifting to improving policing.

In Maryland, for example, the legislature, governor, and citizens in high-crime areas like Baltimore mostly agree that law enforcement can be reformed, and needs to be. 

Why We Wrote This

The rhetoric about police funding can easily slip into extremes. But as the state of Maryland illustrates, there’s more agreement about what’s needed than the debate’s polarizing terms suggest.

This summer – over vetoes from the governor – the Maryland General Assembly passed bills that repealed the state’s police bill of rights, restricted no-knock warrants, raised the standard for use of force, required body cameras, and involved civilians in police oversight. Yet some of the state’s largest cities, including Baltimore, increased their police budgets. 

The spending and new standards may seem contradictory, but police reform isn’t a binary. Police budgets are more complicated than terms like “refund” or “defund” suggest. 

“I think that adequate funding is a prerequisite to quality policing,” says Stephen Rushin, a law professor at Loyola University Chicago. “We just need to make sure that that money is being spent not just on things like officers’ salary and equipment, but is also being spent in part on accountability.” 

Donzo Monk has no love for the police. 

He’s spent his entire life in Baltimore and says he has learned to expect corruption in local politics and law enforcement. Four years ago, he finished a 10-year prison sentence for selling drugs – a charge he denies. An officer found drugs on him, he admits, but he says he wasn’t selling and the search violated his privacy.

But Mr. Monk doesn’t want fewer police. He wants better police. 

Why We Wrote This

The rhetoric about police funding can easily slip into extremes. But as the state of Maryland illustrates, there’s more agreement about what’s needed than the debate’s polarizing terms suggest.

“I don’t believe that they should totally defund the police because we do need law and order,” he says. “Without law and order, we have chaos and anarchy.”

On this issue, Mr. Monk – a Black man from one of America’s most liberal cities – agrees with his white Republican governor. In October, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced $150 million to “refund the police.” Around two-thirds of the money would go to police aid and salary. Another one-third would fund accountability programs, neighborhood safety, and victim services. 

The plan almost certainly won’t pass the state’s heavily Democratic General Assembly. But, oddly enough, it communicates some consensus. A year after widespread calls to defund or abolish the police, those options are increasingly unpopular. In Maryland, the legislature, governor, and citizens in high-crime areas like Baltimore mostly agree that law enforcement can be reformed, and needs to be. 

That’s true across the country, says University of Nebraska Omaha Professor Emeritus Sam Walker. Police reform and police spending aren’t part of a zero-sum game. 

“If Governor Hogan is talking about refunding police, then money becomes the leverage for doing things differently, and I think that’s an important strategic lever to change things,” says Dr. Walker. “I don’t think you have to go through the defund part to say that we want to create a modern and progressive police department that’s going to handle routine problems in a better way.”

In some ways, Maryland has become a national case study on where to start. This summer – over vetoes from the governor – the General Assembly passed bills that repealed the state’s police bill of rights, restricted no-knock warrants, raised the standard for use of force, required body cameras, and involved civilians in police oversight. Meanwhile some of the state’s largest cities, including Baltimore, increased their police budgets. 

The spending and new standards may seem contradictory, but police reform isn’t a binary. In some areas, research suggests spending more on law enforcement could improve public safety and reduce police violence. In others, spending on social programs would help more. Police budgets are more complicated than terms like “refund” or “defund” suggest. 

Uneven police funding

There are around 18,000 police departments in the United States, and about half of them have 10 or fewer officers. By contrast, the largest, in New York City, has roughly 36,000. 

Almost all funding for law enforcement comes from local sales and property taxes. That means two things: There are huge gaps in funding between counties, and the areas with the most crime often have the least money to spend on police. When budgets are tight, that can create a cascade of higher crime and worse policing.

Even though most funding is local, state and federal governments contribute through aid and grant programs. It’s a complex knot to untangle. It’s also a reminder that American police budgets are too complicated for a one-size-fits-all solution, says Loyola University Chicago School of Law Professor Stephen Rushin.

“I think that adequate funding is a prerequisite to quality policing,” says Dr. Rushin. “We just need to make sure that that money is being spent not just on things like officers’ salary and equipment, but is also being spent in part on accountability.” 

Cheye Calvo, former 11-year mayor of small Berwyn Heights, Maryland, spent years advocating for police reform after officers, acting on poor intel, botched a no-knock raid on his home. That experience didn’t change his opinion on their budget. 

“As a mayor, I was constantly at the legislature, lobbying for highway user monies and police aid,” says Mr. Calvo. “Those are probably the two most regular lobbying things we had to do as a group because funding is a real issue in Maryland.” 

Steve Ruark/AP
Baltimore city police instructor Mike Long (left) demonstrates a technique with police trainee Alhaji Fofana of Philadelphia, during defense tactic training on Aug. 4, 2021, in Baltimore. Baltimore's police force is struggling to meet staffing targets to comply with a reform intervention in place as part of federal oversight.

The view from Baltimore 

The environment is much different just 30 miles away in Baltimore. Per capita, the city spends a similar amount on police as Washington, the closest major city. But because Baltimore’s tax base is so much smaller, law enforcement takes up much more of its total budget.

There’s been a huge increase in violent crime during the pandemic, and cities such as Dallas, Los Angeles, and New York have responded with higher funding. Baltimore has as well, with a net $6 million increase in the past year. In a city with some of the state’s worst schools and some of the country’s worst public transit, spending more on police can be difficult to stomach.

“In Baltimore City, it’s hard to digest ‘refund’ when we’ve never taken anything away,” says Ray Kelly, executive director of the Citizens Policing Project and a lifelong Baltimore resident.

Mr. Kelly is part of a team that monitors Baltimore’s Consent Decree, a 2017 agreement with the federal government to reform the police department after the Department of Justice found officers abused citizen’s First and Fourth Amendment rights. Among other things, the decree calls for more civilian oversight, community policing, and higher officer accountability.

Those programs can be expensive – hence the governor’s “refund the police” plan.

“Almost everyone was expressing the same concerns: that they were having difficulty recruiting police officers, that they were having difficulty retaining police officers, and that they didn’t have funding to do a lot of the things that they wanted to do to improve policing,” says Governor Hogan, in an interview with the Monitor. On the right and the left, he says, almost everyone wants police reform.

Public opinion on the issue is confusing and sometimes contradictory. In a Goucher College poll last October, 79% of Maryland residents supported “increasing funding for police departments to hire more or better trained officers” and 54% supported “reducing the budget for the police department in their community and shifting the funds to social programs related to mental health, housing, and education.” 

But Mr. Hogan says that debate doesn’t necessarily have to be an either-or. “I’m for funding all of those things.”

Not all Marylanders believe that. 

Money alone won’t solve the problem

More than six years ago, the governor canceled a massive project to expand public transportation in some of Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods. The city’s mental health and addiction recovery programs still receive a tiny share of the police budget, says Mr. Kelly. In his view, the police budget is a “moral document.” Spending shows priorities; press releases don’t.

“I think the whole refund rhetoric is pure stagecraft,” says Maryland state Del. David Moon, a Democrat from the Washington suburbs of Montgomery County. “There hasn’t been any defunding in Maryland or its localities.” 

Even if there had been, says Mr. Calvo, the former mayor, the state’s problems with policing were never just about funding. Maryland once had some of the nation’s most police-friendly laws, he says, and those often closed the door on reform. The General Assembly’s extensive police bills from earlier this year were a first step, in his eyes. Careful police funding can be a second.

“The more important part is what they do with the funding,” says Peter Moskos, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and former Baltimore police officer.

Money is important, says Dr. Moskos, but leadership and strategy matter much more. In his opinion, both are still big problems in Baltimore. Until they improve, he doesn’t expect much to change – funding or not. 

Neither do residents like Mr. Monk, speaking to the Monitor outside a train station on his way to work. Baltimore’s problems with crime and policing are like the city’s problems with poverty or racism, he says. They’re fundamental, and fixing them feels unrealistic.

Mr. Monk’s wife, standing next to him, nods in agreement. The police budget, he says, should probably stay the same. The city needs better social services, better education, more opportunities for young people who feel like crime is their only option. At the same time, Baltimore needs officers who aren’t corrupt, who have better training, who actually live in the city. 

He rises to catch the train, wearing a black Ravens cap and Nike Air Maxes. 

“We need better police, that’s all,” says Mr. Monk.

Noah Robertson reported from Baltimore. Patrik Jonsson reported form Tybee Island, Georgia.

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