It’s the shortest of the 11 questions on the ballot for Baltimore voters to consider this fall, and it’s leaving some of them scratching their heads to figure out what it’s about.
“Question H is for the purpose of establishing a Baltimore City Police Department, the head of which is the Police Commissioner.”
No, it’s not about “re-funding” or “defunding” the police. It’s not about Baltimore’s federal consent decree to Improve its police department, either.
The city of Baltimore, of course, already has a police department, and a police commissioner already leads it.
The question on the ballot is about control of the department, which for more than 160 years has been overseen by the state. In 1860, state lawmakers wrested control from the city in hopes of quelling deadly political street fighting under the reign of the Know-Nothing Party.
The General Assembly last year cleared the way for the issue to appear on city ballots, so now voters are being asked if they would like to take control back. If voters ratify the change to the city’s charter, City Hall could take control of the department as early as Jan. 1.
So why is the referendum worded the way it is? That was deliberate, said Dana Moore, one of two co-chairs of the city’s Local Control Advisory Board. The 18-member board has been meeting for the last year to discuss how the city law department should write the ballot question and the details of what local control would mean.
While the department has long existed, it is not recognized in the charter in the way other city agencies are, said Moore, the city’s chief equity officer. The board, with input from the law office, the city Department of Legislative Reference and Democratic City Council President Nick Mosby’s office, concluded the ballot question needed to stick to the basics and simply seek to establish the department as a city agency, Moore said.
“That language aligns with language that is already in the charter with other agencies,” Moore said. “We kept it really, really simple so we could ask the voters whether they want this as a city agency or not.”
That language might be clear if you’re a student of the charter and are familiar with the state’s very particular legislation that allowed the ballot question, said Democratic Councilman Ryan Dorsey, who has used social media to urge people to vote yes on Question H.
However, he acknowledged, most people will find it confusing. Dorsey said including some context in the question would have helped significantly.
[ 2022 Baltimore Sun Voter Guide: Ballot questions ]
But he’s not thinking about the ballot question failing. Voters who are active and planning to participate in the election are likely aware enough to figure out the question’s intent, he said.
“I expect it to pass, but if by some chance it doesn’t, I fully expect people to blame the poor wording of the question,” Dorsey said.
History suggests the issue is likely to be approved. In the last two decades, Baltimore voters have considered hundreds of ballot questions and rejected only one — a proposal to lower the minimum age to run for City Council.
The push to reestablish local control of police in Baltimore has been decades in the making. While Baltimore taxpayers have remained responsible for funding the department, it took until 1976 for the state to return the right to pick the city’s police commissioner.
Black leaders in the city had lobbied intensely to provide the mayor the authority to nominate a commissioner for the council’s approval and to fire him (all have been men so far) when necessary. They argued the agency was in urgent need of reform and was unresponsive to community demands.
Calls for further changes in policing and oversight of law enforcement were renewed following the fatal injury that Freddie Gray suffered in city police custody in 2015 and after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd in 2020.
Without local control, Baltimore’s mayor and City Council have lacked the clear authority to directly require specific changes on issues such as disciplinary polices, whether officers should have to live in the city they patrol and what technology can be used.
[ Term-limit foes want Baltimore’s elected officials to serve more, not less time in office to get things done ]
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Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott championed the issue of local control when he was on City Council. He drafted and lobbied for the legislation the state legislature passed overwhelmingly in 2021 to get the issue on the 2022 ballot in the city.
Moore conceded that the question’s wording could confuse voters, which is part of why the board has undertaken a campaign to educate voters on the referendum. Several meetings were scheduled for this week, and another will be held Oct. 20 at Morgan State University.
Ashiah Parker, head of the No Boundaries Coalition and a co-chair of the Local Control Advisory Board, said her organization and many others represented on the board also have been doing outreach to make sure voters understand the reasons for wanting to move to local control.
“As we work toward lower crime and safer neighborhoods, we’re letting residents of Baltimore City know that this could be one of the first steps of many ... in making sure the police department is functioning in a constitutional way and just ensuring we can govern our city in a safe way,” Parker said.
A ballot issue committee, headed by local control board member Ray Kelly, registered with the state election board as the Committee for Local Control to support the measure. A campaign finance report filed by the committee in September showed no money raised or spent advocating for the issue.
Moore said she feels confident voters will approve the measure.
“This is what Baltimore wants and what Baltimore needs,” she said. “But I think we have to work hard. I take nothing for granted. Baltimoreans ask a lot of questions, and we have the answers. We’re going to keep answering them until polls close.”