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Tough on crime strategies like those proposed for Baltimore don’t work in corrupt police departments (Commentary)

Picture of Dayvon Love

Dayvon Love

Director of Public Policy
Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle

Gov. Larry Hogan has criticized the legislature in general, and Senate Judicial Proccedings’ Chair Will Smith in particular, for his unwillingness to consider any of Mr. Hogan’s crime proposals, which include mandatory minimums. Since then, Senator Smith’s committee has moved one of the governor’s bill to the floor, which in some direct and indirect ways further entrenches a failed carceral response to public safety and capitulates to Mr. Hogan’s criticism.

What is so problematic about the governor’s reprovals is the fact that he continues to peddle an approach to public safety that has failed, and call out the legislature for supposedly doing nothing, while he lodges no substantial criticism of the corruption and incompetence of the police department.

Earlier during this year’s legislative session, former Senate President Mike Miller filed a bill to give Attorney General Brian Frosh funding for 25 new prosecutors to prosecute crime in Baltimore City. Mr. Hogan has already included the funding in his budget, but many lawmakers are rightly skeptical of the merits of this move.

Mr. Hogan and Mr. Miller have antiquated public safety approaches. The impulse that steers elected officials to focus on the prosecution of violent crime and enhanced sentences obscures the central flaw in the public safety ecosystem. That flaw is the long-standing culture of corruption within law enforcement.

For the past several years, I have been advocating for police accountability measures in the legislature, and they have been met with tremendous pushback from Annapolis leadership. While the emphasis on addressing police misconduct and brutality was a primary focus of my advocacy for police reform legislation, the continued reluctance to deal seriously with the culture of corruption has made the police department an extremely unreliable institution to address public safety.

Another way to say this is that there are no amount of sentence enhancements or additional outside prosecutors that can be legislated into law that gets around the fundamental problem of a police department that is fatally compromised by corruption. Addressing police corruption and the foolhardiness of the “tough on crime” approach to public safety is not a refusal to deal with the very real problem of having a high rate of homicides in Baltimore. Instead, this is an objective assessment of what has not worked to address the problem of homicide in Baltimore, and the harm that Mr. Miller and Mr. Hogan’s approach to public safety has had on black people in Baltimore.

We have tried the tough-on-crime approach and certainly, during Mr. Miller’s time as Senate president, we saw a raft of mandatory minimum bills pass, as well as zero-tolerance initiatives like those overseen by former Governor Martin O’Malley. Giving Attorney General Brian Frosh more prosecutors will not reduce crime. Instead, we will see tougher sentences, more prosecutions and more black and brown bodies behind bars.

Mr. Miller once said in 1989: “Baltimore is a goddamn ghetto… It is s**t … It is a war zone. I mean it’s crack… these dime bags of PCP…” This type of language was echoed by President Donald Trump last year when he called Baltimore a “rat and rodent-infested mess.” Embedded in this rhetoric is the societal belief that black people are pathologically predisposed to crime and violence and deserve to be treated as less than human.

A recognition of our humanity would lead people away from seeing the problem of violence in Baltimore as an inherent pathology that afflicts black communities and instead as collective trauma inflicted on black people by this society rooted in a system of white supremacy that has gone untreated and has metastasized into the normalization of violence.

An actual public safety strategy that would have a real impact in Baltimore should include police reform measures that root out police corruption that leads to ineffective policing. It would also include more resources for witness protection so that people feel safe coming forward to put away people who are harming the community. Finally, it should also include holistic anti-violence programs that are now extremely underfunded.

These are policies that have not been supported by the political establishment because they are not rooted in the pathology-ridden narrative about black people that is so salient in American society. These strategies are based on empowering the community, not just punishment.

We want violence in our community to end more than Governor Hogan and former Senate President Miller could ever imagine. We don’t need anyone to fix us because we are not broken and we don’t need anyone to come save us because we can’t be saved. We just want the resources to do what we are capable of doing for ourselves and a public safety institution that is forced to respect our humanity.

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