The Daily Record: Public safety remains priority No. 1 in Baltimore

Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on on April 27, 2017.

A few weeks ago we celebrated a beautiful Easter weekend. But once again the weekend was marred by the disturbing fact that more than a dozen people were either wounded or killed in the continuing plague of violent crime in the city.

Four of the shooting victims died, including a 28-year-old woman and her unborn child. These deaths are tragic for the families, loved ones and communities that experience this senseless violence. Regrettably, the death toll in the city now stands at more than 100. That’s 34 percent higher than at the same time last year – and higher than it’s been in the first four months of any year since 1998.

As the Easter weekend mayhem underscores, violent crime – homicide in particular — is an iron shackle weighing on the city. No one, including Kevin Davis, the focused and committed police commissioner, has been able to   find the magic key to remove its grip on Baltimore.

Police officers are fighting gangs and other criminals in the city who have easy access to weapons, the latest encrypted cellphones and other new technologies to stay ahead of the law.

Spending on police

As a backdrop to this unacceptable level of violence is a debate about the 2018 budget for the Baltimore Police Department. Many have openly criticized the fact that the city spends almost half of a billion dollars on public safety, more than twice the amount that is spent on education.

A reduction in the number of sworn police officers, the inability to retain and recruit police officers, and a negotiated work schedule that is heavily dependent on a full complement of officers has resulted in millions of dollars in police overtime. In fiscal year 2017, $17.9 million was budgeted for overtime in the city’s general fund budget. But, overtime spending is targeted to reach $46 million, or $28 million over budget.

Due to the operating deficit in the Baltimore City Public Schools, Mayor Catherine Pugh and elected leaders were able to secure additional state funding to help reduce the school system’s shortfall. However, the mayor needs to find city funding to share in this deficit reduction. Understandably, Pugh has indicated a desire to trim $5.5 million, approximately 1 percent of the entire police budget, to help address a shortfall in the city’s public schools budget.

Surprisingly, some City Council members have weighed in, saying they want to cut the police budget even more – some have suggested as much as an additional $10 million.

Granted, the city school system’s $1.3 billion budget is of grave concern. It was facing a $130 million gap. Thankfully the governor and state officials stepped in recently to help close some of the shortfall, but not all of it.

But taking more money from the police budget and using it to help address the school budget troubles, while well intentioned, isn’t the right move at this time.

City police are fighting a violent crime wave that is undermining the city’s reputation regionally and nationally and threatens its ability to flourish – that includes ensuring that all school-age children are safe in their communities and will grow to reach their full potential.

In addition to the physical harm that is threatening, there’s a body of research that has found that learning suffers when kids are exposed to crime and violence.

Money, of course, isn’t the sole answer to the crime epidemic.

Letting the city shine

I’ve written and said in the past that Baltimore is Maryland’s economic engine and cultural jewel. Despite the prevailing violence in the city, that remains true.

But at the end of the day, public safety has to be the No. 1 priority to ensure this jewel can shine.

Citizens have a reasonable expectation to move about their neighborhoods, go to work, visit local shops, parks and houses of worship without concerns about shootings and other violence. Students should be comfortable going to and from school safely without fear of guns. And employers must have full confidence that their employees can get to and from job sites without being victimized.

Without a strong sense of public safety, the tremendous assets, attributes, and accomplishments of the city become blurred or lost in a news story of a recent tragedy.

The city has much going for it right now. There are cranes dotting the skyline. Efforts to address blight and to encourage investment in overlooked neighborhoods are a focal point. Significant capital is flowing into a number of major development projects. Millennials are populating new apartments in downtown. And amazing innovations are generated on the campuses of Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

But to ensure all this positive activity continues and leads to continued economic growth and vitality, the homicide rate and the level of other violent crimes absolutely must be addressed with the help of a well-funded police department.

Call to action

It’s not the first time the Greater Baltimore Committee has sounded this siren call to action. In July 2015 I co-authored a commentary on behalf of our board of directors noting that the executives at major employers in the Baltimore region believed the mayor, police commissioner and other officials must “decisively address the violence in our midst and to put our community on a road that reclaims Baltimore’s rightful place as a city for others to congratulate and emulate.”

In the commentary – a call to action to our elected officials – a list of expectations were set forth by the business community. Among them was, “That elected leaders at all levels commit all available resources to quickly equip police with the equipment and technologies they need to perform their duties in today’s public safety environment.”

Fast forward to today and it is equally imperative that a new set of city elected officials remain focused on what remains the top priority and responsibility of a city government and its elected officials – the public safety of the citizens.

The fact remains that Baltimore is behind the curve on the crime wave. The police department is not adequately staffed with patrol officers due to retirement and recruiting challenges, lacks modern patrol car equipment, and uses outdated information technologies for battling tough criminals.

Along with those pressing needs, the city and the police have signed a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice that includes mandates that will cost millions of dollars to implement a new culture of law enforcement.

In short, the city police department needs every dollar and then some.

In the GBC’s 2015 call to action commentary we stated that city officials must “focus on the right things at the right time.”

For Baltimore, the right thing remains getting public safety in order and making sure the police have every advantage to make that happen. The time, of course, is now.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a frequent contributor to The Daily Record.