As the new year began in Baltimore, a group of “squeegee kids”—Black youth who earn money by cleaning windshields at city intersections and are often criminalized—helped cars navigate a malfunctioning traffic light because the police failed to do so.
It took the city hours to repair the light, and those attending that Sunday’s Baltimore Ravens football game arrived safely only because young people who lack economic opportunity navigated traffic, doing the job that should have been done by the police force. It served as another stark reminder of Baltimore’s broken priorities.
In 2020, Baltimore had the highest per-capita police spending among all large U.S. cities, at $840 per resident. For context, comparably sized Nashville, Tennessee, spent just $311 per resident.
A week earlier, as the COVID-19 pandemic surged to historic levels across Maryland, with many desperately searching in vain for medical masks and at-home tests, the city quietly approved spending $18 million on new police helicopters and $23 million on police cars, yet it failed to invest in stockpiling personal protective equipment, increased testing capacity, or improved ventilation in the city’s aging school buildings.
I demand that money be reallocated from the Baltimore Police Department [to] life-affirming resources.
The $18 million funding was the last infusion of cash before the year’s end for the police, whose budget was increased by $28 million to a historic $555 million in 2021. Meanwhile, the city experienced 337 homicides over the course of that year, marking the seventh straight year of surpassing the grim milestone of 300 murders. The BPD arrested suspects for just 41% of the city’s homicides, marking the fourth straight year it fell below the national average.
Long before it became a national rallying cry, activists in Baltimore urged the city to defund the police, questioning the efficacy of heavily investing in policing while neglecting programs and services that can help prevent violence.
In 2021, those calls reached a fever pitch. At the annual Taxpayers’ Night, dozens of residents spoke out, calling on the city to shift spending from police toward schools, public and mental health care, youth programs, and violence prevention—all of which are chronically underfunded.
“I demand that money be reallocated from the Baltimore Police Department [to] life-affirming resources,” Baltimore resident Elaine Millas said at the forum.
But the City Council ignored her call and voted unanimously to pass the budget, without debate.
For every dollar spent on police, the city spends 1 cent on substance abuse and mental health, 1 cent on youth violence prevention, 5 cents on job development, 12 cents on housing and community development, and 55 cents on public schools, according to a 2017 report by the Center for Popular Democracy.
One fierce critic of the city’s spending priorities is 28-year-old restorative practices practitioner and abolitionist Bilphena Yahwon, who questioned why the city had approved tens of millions of dollars in additional police funding in late December, while it was unprepared for the impending COVID-19 surge.
“In the middle of a pandemic the city has $41 million to dish out for police helicopters,” Yahwon tweeted. A day later, she tested positive for COVID-19, and she wasn’t alone: By Jan. 4, Baltimore was averaging 2,739 new cases per day, a 1,879% increase over the previous two weeks, according to The New York Times.
Yahwon’s illness was unpleasant, but her symptoms were manageable—her fever and sore throat passed after a week—but the outbreak quickly overwhelmed Baltimore’s hospitals and spread to the city’s long-underfunded public education system, forcing schools to close en masse as the virus rapidly spread through a system that lacked the resources to keep it at bay.
For Yahwon and other activists, the most recent COVID-19 spike along with the police budget increases underscored the need for Baltimore to adopt a radically different vision for fighting both COVID-19 and high rates of crime and homicides in disinvested communities.
“We’re looking at our hospital’s infrastructures and they’re failing, and we’re looking at our schools and they’re failing, and we’re looking at our after-school resources and they’re failing, or looking our teachers and they’re failing, all as a result of COVID and even before COVID,” Yahwon says. “And it’s like we don’t say, OK, how about we take the $41 million [we just spent on police helicopters and cars] and ask, what could it look like in our classrooms?”
Like in many other cities, the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were a flash point for the defund movement in Baltimore, where activists have long called for the city to invest more resources into low-income Black and Brown communities. Then-Council President Brandon Scott, who is now the mayor, backed calls to shift police spending away from law enforcement to social services.
In 2020, Scott helped reduce the police budget by $22 million. “In order to reduce our dependence on policing, we must continue the work we have started tonight over the next term,” Scott said at the time.
But a year later, in 2021, Scott increased the police budget by $28 million. The mayor cited high crime, police pension, and health care obligations, and obligations to a federal consent decree overseeing the city’s notoriously corrupt police department, as reasons for not reducing police spending.
Activists who backed Scott’s campaign after he pledged to shift resources away from police sharply criticized him for reneging on his promise. “The mayor is no longer an ally,” Rob Ferrell, senior organizer with the Black-led grassroots group Organizing Black, told The Trace. “He is the target.” Ferrell’s organization is helping spearhead the defund movement in Baltimore.
Although the city’s defund movement has faced setbacks, Baltimore activists have enjoyed varying levels of success in other arenas of grassroots organizing: for housing justice through community land trusts and for food justice through urban farming projects.
While grassroots activists have made progress on the aforementioned fronts, the demand to defund police remains stubbornly out of reach—for now. Organizing Black has demanded that the city cut $100 million from police funding—which is less than 20% of the 2021 budget—and that half the remaining police budget be instead invested into Black neighborhoods in the form of affordable housing, public education, universal health care, and a jobs program. They are also calling for the creation of a community wellness trust fund, governed by participatory budgeting, that would allow citizens to determine how to increase public safety. The group is also demanding the police not be used to respond to quality-of-life problems, such as mental health crises.
“The constant growth of the police budget has not correlated into a decrease in crime or harm and has only fed surveillance and police violence in Black and brown communities,” said Organizing Black in a statement.