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Defund The Baltimore Police

A former Baltimore cop questions how a department with a nearly half-billion-dollar budget that is riven by rampant corruption and brutality, bloated overtime spending, and unaccounted for patrol officers can continue to justify its existence

Baltimore Police officers look on during a rally for Freddie Gray in front of the Baltimore Police Department’s Western District police station on April 21, 2015.Photo illustration by Anagraph. Photo by Drew Angerer / Getty Images.

Two days after video of a Baltimore police officer repeatedly punching and kicking a man prompted outcry from activists and even the mayor, the City Council held its monthly hearing aimed at providing “more frequent legislative oversight into the department’s fight to reduce crime in Baltimore.”  At the meeting on Monday, Ryan Dorsey, a council member who has been a staunch critic of the Baltimore Police Department, said, “It’s very, very clear that the budget we vote on is in no way actually representative of what’s actually going on in the police department. … It’s unfair for the council to vote on a budget that is so blatantly inaccurate.”

A similar scene played out just a few weeks earlier when the Baltimore City Council Budget and Appropriation Committee unanimously voted against a $21 million supplemental payment to cover police overtime expenditures. The city found itself in the same position in June 2017 when it approved shifting $18 million in surplus funds to cover police overtime. The vote itself was largely symbolic since the money has already been spent. BPD was budgeted $16 million for overtime in fiscal year 2018, which ended June 30, but the department spent over $47 million.

The BPD’s overtime spending, a longtime budgetary headache for Baltimore, received national attention in March 2017 when several members of the department’s elite Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF) were indicted on federal charges of robbery, theft, and extortion. The officers were charged with stealing thousands of dollars in overtime money. GTTF supervisor Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, for example, collected overtime while he was on vacation in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. The criminal indictments, plea deals, and testimony during the trial of GTTF officers Daniel Hersl and Maurice Ward revealed the ease with which officers collected fraudulent overtime. Some, like Jenkins, doubled their annual salaries.

Around the time of the GTTF indictment, the BPD began investigating Lt. Steven Bagshaw who was in charge of the Horseshoe Casino Mini-District, a small unit of cops who patrol the downtown casino. Bagshaw was criminally charged in May 2017 for collecting overtime he claimed he worked while he was at home some 50 miles outside of Baltimore. In March 2018, he was convicted for collecting over $8,000 in fraudulent overtime.

The theft allegations prompted Mayor Catherine Pugh to order an audit of the police department’s overtime spending, but the results have yet to be made public. Earlier this year, Baltimore’s City Solicitor Andre Davis claimed the audit is part of the city’s defense against the department in a class-action lawsuit brought by Baltimore’s police union claims claiming that the city has been underpaying officers for years by miscalculating their overtime rate of pay.

I worked for the BPD for 18 years from June 1999 to July 2017. I knew officers who were fired for submitting fraudulent overtime. When I worked in Internal Affairs I even investigated officers for it, though unsuccessfully mainly because of the lack of oversight and safeguards. The ease with which overtime fraud was committed and the fact that neither the city nor BPD took any substantive measures to prevent it always amazed me. The department tried, for example, to have officers timestamp overtime slips, but the bulky, antiquated time clocks they provided to the station houses were usually nonfunctional, didn’t keep the correct time, and were rarely serviced. So overtime fraud was as easy as grabbing a pen and filling out a slip and finding a supervisor willing to approve it. If your supervisor was a part of the scheme, as was the case in the GTTF, then that made overtime fraud easier.

For fiscal year 2019, the Baltimore Police budget is $511 million, up from $497 million in fiscal year 2018. These numbers do not include overtime costs, which routinely exceed projections.  In my last year working for the BPD, the operating budget was $481 million.

Yet, during my nearly two decades with the BPD, I couldn’t point to any one thing in the department and say with confidence, “That’s where the money went.” For example, “Does anyone have crime-scene tape?” was a common question heard from officers at a shooting or homicide scene. When I worked in patrol, tape was routinely recycled from one scene to the next. I packed loose bundles of plain yellow tape in the trunk of my patrol car in case I needed some at a fresh scene.

I have also driven patrol cars that had bumpers held together with duct tape or broken seats where someone shoved a milkcrate behind to keep it upright. Burned out headlights and tail lights were also commonplace, ironic since that’s one of the most common reasons we pulled over civilian drivers. I’ve driven cars that had no working emergency lights or siren.

Little of the BPD’s huge budget appeared to go toward keeping BPD’s technology current, either. Patrol district computers were old and poorly maintained. When I was in Internal Affairs, the computers were slightly newer but the office shared two printers, one of which was also our only copier, so they regularly malfunctioned.  The Motorola radios currently in use by the department are being phased out by the company and will become obsolete by the end of the year. The estimated cost for new radios is $20 million. As a cop, your radio is the most vital piece of equipment you carry. If you are in distress and need help, it is your only way of communicating with the dispatcher and other cops quickly.

The police districts themselves were all in various stages of disrepair. The worst station was the Western District, in a predominantly poor African American neighborhood. The bathrooms and locker rooms were filthy, and electrical wires and outlets were exposed. After the uprising following Freddie Gray’s death in 2015, the Western District station was remodeled and then unveiled as a community center, complete with public restrooms, meditation garden, and free Wi-Fi. The renovation was done with millions of dollars in private donations from sponsors like Baltimore-based sportswear company Under Armour, who hired former commissioner Fred Bealefeld as its head of security, and the Baltimore Ravens. Similar donations also went toward  a fancy new fitness center in the Southeast District station.

During the uprising, the only “riot gear” most of us had was a heavy blue helmet with a plastic face shield. Some were issued gas masks, but often the filters were faulty or expired. The department spent over $2 million to purchase riot gear for officers then, including $84,480 for next-day shipping.

From 2016-18 Baltimore spent over $1.4 billion on the police, not including overtime or the money seized by the BPD, which doesn’t seem to be accounted for in any official manner. A large portion of the department’s budget obviously goes toward officer salaries. Some of it goes toward things like helicopters and body-worn cameras. The department’s mounted unit is slated to get a new $2.5 million stable and recently the marine unit received a new $72,000 submarine to assist in search-and-rescue efforts in the Inner Harbor. And a lot goes to overtime—nearly $100 million in 2017 and 2018 alone.

Yet the Baltimore police union, which has full-salaried BPD officers who are elected to their positions, blames the current overtime expenditures on  “mismanagement” by commanders and the “ineptitude” of previous city leaders. They also say the department is failing to hire and retain an adequate number of cops and blame a shortage in patrol staffing for much of the overtime spending. In May, around 40 percent of the officers in patrol were working overtime. In July, interim Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle said he was shifting 115 officers from other units into patrol to help rein in overtime spending. In the days following the City Council’s vote against covering overtime costs, Mayor Pugh reiterated her desire to hire more officers.

Not everyone, however, sees an increase in police manpower, a favorite cure-all proposed by cop unions, as the answer, including City Council member Dorsey. “BPD claims to have a shortage of officers,” Dorsey said in a July statement, “and that this is a major reason for the high rate of overtime spending and reliance for regular staffing. Yet, the patrol budget has far more positions allocated than the shift schedule requires.”  On July 31, Dorsey said that he found that 1,162  out of the 1,664 officers assigned to patrol were not accounted for in the month of June.

From early 2016 to the end of July, there have been 824 murders and 1,722 nonfatal shootings in Baltimore, a city with a population of just over 611,000 people.  That is an abysmal public safety record at a cost of over a billion dollars, a budget that continues to rise with no discernible momentum in crime reduction. The department, Dorsey tweeted on last week, is “stuck in a rudderless pattern of failings day to day, week to bloated overtime week, then every so often peppered with the latest installment of outrage-inspiring insanity.” Then there are the rarely discussed and less-visible costs of the police to the communities they are supposed to serve. Mass arrests during the years of zero-tolerance, the mental and physical trauma suffered by brutality victims and the victims of the Gun Trace Task Force officers. The continued disparity in the policing of predominantly poor black communities. The BPD’s insatiable appetite for funding—all as it is overrun with corruption scandals and cannot even account for its patrol numbers—proves that the city cannot afford to keep its checkbook for the police open any longer.