How Did We Get to this Status Quo?
Desirable populations vs. populations that no longer play an economic role
To an extent, cities were hamstrung. Political officials found it exceedingly difficult to raise taxes for a few different reasons. The first reason was that the institutions and individuals with the greatest ability to pay taxes were leaving in droves, and many felt that the best way to keep those individuals and institutions that remained was to keep their tax burden low. The second was that with the increased reliance on bonds for revenue, political officials found it more important to generate types of policies that garnered favorable bond ratings—policies that de-emphasized social service provision in favor of economic development. Finally, with only a few exceptions, political parties did little to support policies that entailed either significantly increasing taxes on middle to upper income taxpayers (much less for-profit and not-for-profit institutions), significantly increasing the size and purpose of the welfare state, or considering other alternative means to create a sustainable economy.
As a result of this lack of political will, cities engaged in three sets of policies.
The first suite of policies was designed to attract a combination of desirable resident and consumer populations and desirable businesses. These policies included but were not limited to: tax breaks for downtown headquarters and real estate purchases; financing deals that would give corporations the ability to develop real estate downtown with little money down; similar real estate deals with middle to upper income individuals and families; and providing sports teams (either pre-existing teams or new ones) with sports stadia built with public revenue. The theory behind these policies was that they would generate far more benefits than the costs they incurred in lost tax revenue. The second suite of policies attempted to deal with the disparity between the new economic footprint of the city and the underdeveloped skill sets of the majority of residents within the city. This suite of policies involved transforming k-12 education in such a way that would theoretically make more of the city’s populations eligible for the type of “good jobs” citizens and their cities increasingly needed, and would at the same time further attract desirable middle-to-upper income families.
And the third suite of policies focused on policing and dealing with the population of people who no longer played an explicit role in the city’s economy.
Beginning with Mayor Kurt Schmoke and continuing through Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the portion of the city’s budget taken up by policing has exploded, from approximately $145 million in the 1990s to $445 million in 2015, an increase of almost 300% (Baltimore City Department of Finance). The city has more police than it has in any other city agency. In fact, 50% more employees work in the police department than all the following agencies: health, housing, community development, parks and recreation, employment development, public libraries, head start, re-entry and homeless services. For For FY2017, Baltimore spent $273.5 million more on policing than it does on health, arts and culture, parks and recreation, and housing and community development combined. In FY2018, Mayor Catherine Pugh’s preliminary budget has Baltimore spending $235 million more on policing than on public health, arts and culture, parks and recreation, and housing and community development. Baltimore’s increase in police spending comes with an increase in punitive policing aims and practices, particularly during the Martin O’Malley administration, where during a four year period O’Malley arrested more individuals than the city had residents. Baltimore has become known—particularly in the wake of such high profile television programs as The Corner, Homicide: Life on the Streets, and most famously The Wire (all written or co-written by Baltimore native David Simon)—as a violent high-crime city. Partially due to this media (mis)representation, some argue that police spending has increased because of crime. While crime has increased—particularly in the months since Freddie Gray’s murder—it has not increased 300% since 1990.
Some think about the tragic murder of Freddie Gray as the product of anti-black policing. This viewpoint isn’t all wrong. It’s hard to imagine something as tragic and utterly preventable as the Gray murder happening to a white resident, even a poor white resident of a community like Essex or Dundalk. Furthermore, given the equally tragic deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and others, it’s easy to think of Gray’s murder as the product of anti-black policing policies that are larger than any single city (or in the case of Ferguson, municipality). Finally, given the data, it’s easy to focus almost solely on the police and on policing itself.
However, policing is the product of a political economy that increasingly views black life specifically, and working class labor in general, as disposable. Second, policing is the product of decisions made by political officials. Freddie Gray is killed not simply because he ran from police when they looked at him. Freddie Gray is killed because he represents the class of Baltimore citizens least able to take advantage of the changing economy, and represents the population that poses the greatest risk to the population Baltimore believes it needs to attract in order to stay relevant.
Alternatively, there is a strong case to be made for understanding the death of Freddie Gray and differential policing in Baltimore as a product of the city’s ongoing apartheid and racial hypersegregation. The first evidence is found in the U.S. Department of Justice conducted an investigation of the Baltimore Police Department and found in August 2016 that the department engaged in a wide-ranging pattern and practice of policing in a blistering 164-page report. Baltimore’s officers viewed policing as an exercise of “us versus them” and were found to abuse folks with mental illnesses, harass Black residents with random and unprovoked stops, and re-victimize Black women who were reporting sexual abuse.
The second set of evidence is found in case law from Supreme Court decisions, especially Terry vs. Ohio (1968) and Illinois vs. Wardlow (2000), that give police tremendous latitude to implement Stop-and-Frisk tactics in areas that are deemed “high crime areas” by local officials. The areas that will be deemed “high crime areas” in urban areas are likely those that have been segregated, disinvested, and redlined–just as Sandtown-Winchester has been since at least 1937 according to Baltimore’s Residential Security Map. It’s precisely this legal interpretation that made Freddie Gray’s flight from police and the knife found on him legal in the eyes of the court, because State Attorney Marilyn Mosby had just weeks early declared the area surrounding Gilmor Homes to be a “high crime area,” thereby authorizing legal Stop-and-Frisk activity by the Baltimore Police Department.
It’s the city’s redlined Black communities that are subjected to a vast array of hyperpolice tactics including from police occupation, disproportionate stops, excessive force, secret aerial surveillance, facial scanning, and the deployment of Stingray (to capture cell phone calls) and military equipment during the threat of civil unrest. Baltimore’s greenlined White communities are not subjected to these policing tactics unless there is a significant Black presence in the form of militant protesters as we have seen at the Downtown courthouses during the trials of the officers that killed Freddie Gray, I-83 highway shutdowns, or shutdown marches through the streets of Inner Harbor and Downtown business district.
In responding to the Gray death, activists have correctly focused on the officers directly involved, placing pressure on public officials to ensure that the officers are charged. Protests played some role in Marilyn Mosby’s decision to indict the six officers. Indeed, as there were concerns about police brutality long before Gray’s death—Tyrone West’s family have been protesting his brutal murder by Baltimore City police officers for over 100 weeks—one could argue that Marilyn Mosby was elected as the result of sustained political activism. Activists have also correctly focused on the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, a set of Maryland laws passed in the early seventies that makes it incredibly difficult to hold law enforcement officers accountable when they are suspected of committing a criminal act (Hager 2015). Finally, activists have correctly focused on increasing local voter registration in order to increase the odds of an impartial jury.
However, without significantly modifying Baltimore’s budget in a way that de-emphasizes policing in favor of other political priorities, and without thinking seriously about how to re-orient the economy, the city is likely to further increase spending on police and punitive policing approaches, further putting residents (and, increasingly, police officers) in danger. And as city budgets are by definition zero-sum—each dollar spent on policing is not spent on parks and recreation or some other public good—increased spending on police will further hamstring the city’s ability to provide a healthy and enriching environment for residents. And this will further hamper the city’s ability to chart a path of sustainable development.