Reeling from a Murder Spike, Baltimore Grasps at a Gun Bill

Originally published in CityLab on September 22, 2017.
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Across the country—from Louisiana to Iowa to Massachusetts—so-called “mandatory minimum” sentencing is increasingly out of favor. These are laws that require certain penalties for people convicted of specific drug or firearm offenses. A powerful bipartisan consensus has emerged around the idea that mandatory minimums are ineffective (and expensive) deterrents, as well as racially discriminatory and unlikely to reduce recidivism.

In part, the bill’s success reflects the pressure that the city’s legislators are under to do something—anything—to curb the violence. As the Brennan Center for Justice has reported, violent crime is at historic lows nationally, but no such decline can be found in Baltimore: As of this writing, 253 people have been murdered since January. In 2015, Baltimore’s violent crime rate was more than four times the national average, and its murder rate was more than 11 times the national average. Right now, Baltimore’s murder toll exceeds that of New York City, which has about ten times the population. 

“I by no means think this is a comprehensive solution to gun violence,” says city councilman John Bullock, widely seen as the deciding vote. He recognized the public’s concern with mandatory minimum sentencing, which is why he introduced the amendments to weaken it from its original form. Councilman Eric Costello, who voted for the bill and has said the amended version is “not as strong” as he would have liked, declined a request for comment; Council President Jack Young, who also backed both versions, did not return requests for comment.

Critics of the bill are frustrated with the city council’s rationale to pass a measure that has no evidence to support it.

“The easiest thing for elected officials to do is pass a new criminal law, make sentences longer, add mandatory minimums,” says Molly Gill, vice president of policy for Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “That may give them a feeling of accomplishment, but it’s not going to solve these very complicated problems of why we have violence, gun crimes, and murders.”

Mark Kleiman, an NYU public policy professor and an expert on drug and criminal justice issues, calls the $1,000 fine “gibberish.” Quoting the infamous politician syllogism, he says, “We must do something, this is something, therefore we must do it.”

Among those who testified against the mandatory minimum bill this past summer was Dayvon Love, director of public policy for the Baltimore nonprofit Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle. He points to the support from the Greater Baltimore Committee, a business advocacy group, as key to the bill’s success. “I suspect they are trying to attract more wealthy, white people to invest and come to Baltimore, and the murder rate is merely an impediment to them doing business,” Love says. “They could care less if this bill would have the possibility of destroying the lives of black people who become more prone to violent activity because they were sucked into the criminal justice system.”

Illegal gun possession is highly correlated with the future risk of committing a murder, and Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, does think illegal gun possession is a serious crime and is a major contributor to Baltimore’s homicide rate. Ultimately, though, he did not support the measure passed by the city council, principally because he says there’s no evidence that it would be effective. “It’s rather surprising that there is no solid research that answers the question of what happens if you adopt a mandatory minimum for illegal gun possession,” he says. Most existing research has focused on drug-related arrests.

Webster thinks the city does need to have better consequences for illegal gun possession, but that the consequences should be driven by better arrest and prosecution, rather than at the tail end of the sentencing process. In Baltimore only about 40 percent of arrests for illegal gun possession end up in a conviction or guilty plea. A Baltimore Sun analysis found that about one-quarter of cases are dropped even before defendants go to trial. And though the Baltimore Police Department has improved its homicide clearance rate in 2017 compared to recent years, Webster notes that the past two years have led to many unsolved murders and nonfatal shootings. “When shooters are not locked up, they are emboldened and ripe for being shot themselves,” he testified recently in Annapolis.

Proponents of mandatory-minimum sentencing have taken to placing blame on Baltimore city judges. “At the end of the day, we don’t impose sentences and don’t implement bails,” State’s Attorney Mosby said last year. “We can make a recommendation. But it’s not on us.” In an op-ed that counseled against “reflexively recycling the regressive strategies of the 1980s,” former deputy attorney general of Maryland Thiru Vignarajah noted that leaders who blame the courts are essentially echoing tactics deployed by President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly tried to discredit the judiciary, even threatening judges at times.

Yet this month in Baltimore, the city council voted 8-7 in favor of establishing a new mandatory minimum penalty for individuals caught carrying an illegal gun. The proposed legislation originally would have imposed a one-year jail sentence on first-time offenders caught carrying a gun within 100 yards of places like churches, schools, and parks. After public protest, the bill was weakened to add just a $1,000 fine to existing state law, which already imposes a one-year minimum sentence on second-time offenders. The legislation (in both its original and final form) was backed by the city’s police commissioner, Kevin Davis, along with Mayor Catherine Pugh and Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby—who all also advocated unsuccessfully over the last two years for new statewide mandatory minimums.

“Mandatory minimum sentences are shortcuts we don’t need as prosecutors,” says Vignarajah. “We should be able to walk into a courtroom and explain why a sentence is appropriate and have faith in our judges to determine where a specific defendant falls on the spectrum between a violent repeat criminal and someone who needs a second chance. Mandatory minimums are unduly rigid and strip away discretion that judges need.”

Todd Oppenheim, a public defender in Baltimore who opposes the mandatory minimum measure, says that in his experience most defendants who would be affected by the bill are young and/or first-time offenders, not the “repeat violent offenders” who tend to dominant the debate. “The possession of a handgun is considered a violent offense, but I don’t see it as one because I know the circumstances under which my clients come into possession of it,” he says“Like drugs, a lot of my clients don’t understand that you can possess something without it being on your body.”

The Baltimore Police Department, by contrast, emphasizes that in the past 18 months, 60 percent of the 605 convicted gun offenders had had more than half their sentence suspended by a judge, and more than 100 people were arrested on handgun charges at least twice. The mandatory minimum “isn’t about mass incarceration or locking up more people,” Commissioner Davis testified in July. “It’s about holding the right people accountable.”

Still, there are alternative ideas.

With a new grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, Johns Hopkins’s Daniel Webster is currently working with the state’s attorney’s office and the police department to develop new training protocols that will help strengthen the prosecution of illegal firearms. “First we have to have good policing that is done in a way to identify illegal gun possession without doing illegal searches and unconstitutional policing,” he says. “And then we need to have solid evidence that is useable to bring convictions.”

Dayvon Love emphasizes investments in community-based solutions, “where violence is prevented by people who are in closest proximity to the violence.” Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle’s recommendations include more funding for Safe Streets Baltimore, which uses a public-health strategy of employing ex-offenders as to mediate neighborhood disputes. In studies, the model has shown to be effective, but Baltimore’s program has drawn controversy in the past due to allegations of criminal activity by program workers. Love also cites efforts like the Baltimore Ceasefire movement and local violence prevention centers.

Gill, of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, points out that the number of full-time law enforcement officers per 1,000 Baltimore residents fell 14 percent between 2003 and 2015, and even more in 2016. “Mandatory minimums are incredibly expensive—prison is not cheap,” she says. “It might be a better investment to put more squad cars on street corners than to jack up sentences.”

In other words, the answer doesn’t have to be a year in jail, but the assumption that there will be some consequence to breaking the law. “Right now a lot of people figure I’ll just take my chances,” says Webster.

Kleiman of NYU thinks policymakers should be considering things like 9 p.m. curfews. “It’s the perfect sanction in the sense that it’s salient, it’s aversive, and it doesn’t interfere with family duties and employment,” he says.

Ironically, on October 1, a major new statewide law—the Justice Reinvestment Act—goes into effect, and it will significantly reduce mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders throughout Maryland. The law, which was signed in May of 2016, was widely seen as the broadest criminal justice legislation to pass in decades, representing a major shift away from “War on Drugs”-era policies.

“There’s a progressive movement to move away from incarceration for nonviolent offenses,” says Oppenheim. “But when it comes to violent offenses—and the definition of violence I think is subjective—leaders still harbor the old-school mentality. They don’t have any real ideas, and it helps them get elected.”

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Baltimore Is Finally Doing Something About Its Notorious Police Force

Originally published in VICE on January 12, 2016.
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The city of Baltimore and the federal government unveiled the terms of a sweeping 227 page consent decree Thursday morning, a legal document mandating reforms to the local police force. The deal emerged 21 months after 25-year-old Freddie Gray died while in police custody in April 2015, and five months after a scathing Department of Justice report alleged a litany of unconstitutional, racist, and just plain mean-spirited policing practices in Charm City.

“Through this agreement, we are moving forward together to heal the tension in the relationship between BPD and the community it serves,” US Attorney General Loretta Lynch said at a press conference in the city. “The agreement is robust and comprehensive,” she added, emphasizing that it was negotiated to ensure effective policing, restore the community’s trust in law enforcement, and advance the public and police officers’ safety.

Like 14 similar deals currently being enforced on law enforcement jurisdictions across America, the Baltimore consent decree lays out a number of new rules and systemic changes. Among other things, it calls for a community oversight task force to recommend tweaks to the current civilian oversight systems, insists on respect for individuals’ First Amendment rights to protest and monitor the police, imposes guidelines on proper use of force and transport of people in custody, protocols on constitutional stops, searches, and arrests, requirements for annual “community policing” trainings for all officers, and new procedures for conducting sexual assault investigations. While the BPD has moved to implement some of these reforms already—which the decree acknowledges and commends—Baltimore now has a legal tool to help cure what critics believe is a broken culture of often-brutal policing.

The deal also represents one of the last chances for the Obama administration’s activist Justice Department to leave its fingerprint on the American criminal justice system—and to rein in rogue cops at the center of Black Lives Matter protests. The only question is how aggressively a new, “law and order” happy White House under Donald Trump will enforce it.

The Baltimore City Fraternal Order of the Police, the local police union, quickly issued a critical statement after news of the decree broke Thursday, bemoaning the fact that they were not included in the negotiations. “Despite continued assurance by representatives of the Department of Justice that our organization would be included in the Consent Decree negotiations, no request to participate was ever forthcoming and we were not involved in the process,” the statement said. “As we were not afforded an advance copy of the agreement, neither our rank and file members who will be the most affected, nor our attorneys, have had a chance to read the final product and, as such, we will not have a comment now. Be assured, however, that a response will be forthcoming at the appropriate time.”

Police unions in other cities have worked to block reform efforts through their collective bargaining agreements, and Baltimore activists say they are bracing for similar resistance from the local FOP. The Baltimore police union has opposed reforms to the Law Enforcement Bill of Rights, which governs how officers accused of misconduct are treated in Maryland. Some activists say the statewide law stands as the city’s biggest barrier for meaningful police accountability and transparency.

In October, for its part, the Baltimore FOP issued its own recommendations for inclusion in the consent decree, calling for things like increased whistleblower protections, more cops, and technology upgrades.

During his confirmation hearings for US Attorney General this week, Alabama US Senator Jeff Sessions expressed skepticism about using consent decrees to force change in police departments. “These lawsuits undermine the respect for police officers and create an impression that the entire department is not doing their work consistent with fidelity to law and fairness,” he said. Sessions also once wrote that court-ordered consent decrees were “undemocratic” and “dangerous,” which taken with his more recent comments has served to send a chill down the spine of police reformers nationwide.

Still, Outgoing Attorney General Lynch assured the public at Thursday’s press conference that the consent decree “will live on past this administration.” After all, it is court-enforceable and there will be an independent monitor overseeing the agreement.

But Lawrence Brown, an assistant professor of public health at Morgan State University, told VICE he has “no faith in Trump’s folks, especially if it’s Beauregard Sessions” and that he expects the police union to oppose key elements of the agreement. “Other means will have to be utilized to ensure this is enforced,” he said, pointing to ongoing efforts to change or repeal the Law Enforcement Bill of Rights.

Meanwhile, DeRay McKesson, a Black Lives Matter national activist and administrator in the Baltimore City Public School system, praised the agreement on Twitter for its scope, and noted that it’s the first consent decree he’s ever seen to include school police.

 

Skepticism that the new administration will hold local cops’ feet to the fire abounds, however. One member of Baltimore Bloc, a grassroots group focused on police reform, told VICE that she and her fellow activists have no confidence in a Trump DOJ to enforce the consent decree, even if they had their doubts about enforcement under a Hillary Clinton DOJ, too. “I think Baltimore Police is going to resist it all the way, FOP’s statement is already obstructionist as hell, and it was the police gleefully violating people’s rights that got us here,” the activist said.

The city has been under pressure to finish the consent decree before Inauguration Day. That’s because once the agreement is finalized—it still needs court approval—a federal judge will be empowered to enforce it, no matter who is president or US attorney general. Still, legal experts generally agree that if the police department or city political leadership fail to follow through on the terms of the agreement, it will be up to Trump’s Department of Justice to take them to court to compel change

Redlining map project provides new way for researchers to rethink struggling urban areas

Originally published in the winter 2016 issue of Johns Hopkins Magazine
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After 25-year-old Freddie Gray suffered a fatal spinal cord injury in 2015 while in the custody of Baltimore police, the city erupted with protests, riots, and much subsequent soul-searching. Attention focused on Sandtown-Winchester, the neighborhood where Gray was arrested—one of the most impoverished and blighted areas in Baltimore. Local community leaders set up meetings to discuss what it would take to support and revitalize poor neighborhoods like Sandtown, where more than a third of the houses are abandoned and roughly 20 percent of working-age residents are unemployed. The subtext of these well-meaning conversations was that there must have been a time when these neighborhoods were more desirable, and that at some point, somewhere along the way, things went downhill.

In the mid-1990s, in what was one of the most ambitious neighborhood revitalization projects in Baltimore’s history, public and private sources poured more than $130 million into Sandtown-Winchester in a massive effort to transform it. Yet despite the influx of new housing, health services, and school enhancements, the investments were not enough to attract new businesses and jobs, or to suppress the flourishing drug trade.

Mapping Inequality, a new project created by three teams drawn from four universities, including Johns Hopkins, offers leaders and researchers a new way to think about persistently struggling neighborhoods like Sandtown. Launched in October, the project features unprecedented online access to maps and materials produced between 1935 and 1940 by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, a federal agency created as part of the New Deal. HOLC officials traveled to nearly 250 cities across America throughout the 1930s, developing color-coded maps to demonstrate each neighborhood’s risk and creditworthiness, factors that often reflected the community’s racial demographics. These influential documents helped standardize housing policy and real estate practices, and they were used by federal housing agencies until the late 1960s.

Sifting through Baltimore’s own HOLC map on the Mapping Inequality website, one can begin imagining how developers, bankers, real estate agents, and federal officials thought about each locality. Users can pore over the jigsaw puzzle–like breakdown of the city’s neighborhoods, clicking through to scans of each one’s “Area Description,” a document that includes information on the terrain, detrimental influences (“Obsolescence” and “Negro concentration,” for example), and racial makeup of residents. Each area was assigned a letter grade: A-rated neighborhoods, colored green, signified the best places to live; D-rated neighborhoods, colored red, were the worst.

“Part of what’s interesting about the project is just getting to think through what people’s popular narratives are today about segregation and redlining,” says Johns Hopkins historian N.D.B. Connolly, who worked on the Mapping Inequality project. “What do people know? And how can showing these HOLC maps add to that general understanding?” Connolly, an expert in the history of race and American cities, thinks the project can help people consider the longer historical trajectory of inequality.

“It also provides a way to think about racial inequality as far more of a problem of law and economics than of culture,” he says.

The HOLC maps and area descriptions are available for the public to download, so others can begin to pursue questions that even two or three years ago would have likely been too onerous to tackle. For example, what was the relationship between residential segregation and union membership? By collecting information from union membership rolls, you could now analyze union members’ living conditions. You could also determine what segregated neighborhoods looked like in terms of infrastructure quality, or how many homes had telephones, or the availability of grocery stores. “It gives you a way of taking a slice of American life and adding a whole host of new data points,” says Connolly.

On Baltimore’s HOLC map, Sandtown-Winchester was a redlined, D-rated area eight decades ago. Federal agents determined that it had “houses in very bad condition” and vandalized buildings in poor repair. They reported relatively equal numbers of white immigrants and black people living in the area, and when asked to assess the area’s “trend of desirability” over the next 10 to 15 years, HOLC agents predicted it going “downward.”

These maps challenge the narrative that healthy, thriving neighborhoods declined because of rioting in the 1960s or indolence. What they actually suggest, Connolly says, is that these Baltimore neighborhoods were always struggling, but more opportunities were given to white immigrants to get out. “These are not places that have ‘gone downhill,'” Connolly says. “Rather, they are places that were always full of environmental hazards, always considered poor and getting worse, and also the only option available to black families due to housing discrimination.”

How Cops Have Turned Baltimore into a Surveillance State

Originally published in VICE on September 13, 2016.
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Somehow, the policing nightmare in Baltimore keeps getting worse.

In July, charges were dropped against all the officers responsible for 25-year-old Freddie Gray’s death, a massive defeat for police accountability in a city crying out for it. Just weeks later, the feds released a scathing report finding Baltimore cops engaged in systematic racism and callousness towards victims of sexual assault. And perhaps most spectacular of all, a magazine story late last month revealed cops have been running a secret aerial surveillance program in city skies.

All of which is to say that just as cynical and frustrated residents began to plot the long road to reform in a city wracked by gun violence and shady policing, experts and reform advocates now find themselves at a loss to explain how one city is wrapped up in just about every kind of police excess there is.

The aerial surveillance program consists chiefly of flying planes over 8,000 feet in the air and gathering video footage across a roughly 30 square mile radius, as Bloomberg Businessweek reported. The program was funded secretly by Texas billionaires, Laura and John Arnold, who say they are looking to support new tools that can help police departments more effectively solve crime. The planes have flown about 300 hours in Baltimore since January.

For its part, the police department denies that officers have done anything wrong, or that the planes even amount to a form of surveillance. TJ Smith, media relations chief for the Baltimore Police Department, told VICE the aerial program “doesn’t infringe on privacy rights” because it captures images available in public spaces. “We do not feel like citizen’s rights were violated because they weren’t,” he said. “This phase is a trial run to see if this is technology would be useful in the city of Baltimore. We are constantly searching for creative ways to solve crime in a city that saw 344 murders in 2015.”

An evaluation of the program’s effectiveness, also funded by the Arnolds, is expected to come out later this month.

Meanwhile, last week, in the final days available for public comment on the feds’ scathing appraisal of Baltimore cops—the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, and Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings hosted a town hall for residents to share their thoughts on police reform. Michael Wood, a former city cop turned reform activist, attended, and while he expected racism to be at the top of the list, the surveillance bombshell was clearly overwhelming residents, too.

“I haven’t spoken to a person who isn’t furious,” Wood told VICE of revelations about the program.

Remarkably, the mayor and the city council were both unaware of the surveillance experiment’s very existence, namely because it was funded secretly through a local foundation. The foundation’s leadership have claimed they did not realize what the Arnolds’ money was going towards, and in a statement, Laura Gamble, board chair, and Thomas Wilcox, the foundation’s president and CEO, said they have “learned valuable lessons from this experience.”

Baltimore public defenders were also kept in the dark, and argue that police and prosecutors’ failure to disclose—in court documents—when video footage came from aerial surveillance is a serious problem. Defenders have called for a suspension of the program.

Meanwhile, state and local politicians are looking at legislative responses to the city’s latest police scandal. At the next session, Curt Anderson, the head of Baltimore’s delegation to the Maryland House of Delegates, is considering introducing surveillance regulations that would apply to all Maryland police departments. He told the Baltimore Sun that lawmakers need to figure out “how and where [footage] would be used, where you keep the information, how much it would cost to store that information, and how much it would cost someone if they made a request for that information.” On the local level, the ACLU of Maryland plans to craft legislation for someone on the Baltimore City Council to sponsor, which would limit the scope of police surveillance and/or increase the level of civilian oversight.

Elizabeth Joh, a law professor at the University of California Davis who specializes in policing and technology, told me that while police secrecy is nothing new, the kind of dragnet surveillance that Baltimore has engaged in—where officers aren’t necessarily looking for one particular person, or conducting a specific investigation—raises serious political issues. “You need to balance some legitimate police needs with the idea that police may just have too much information on innocent people,” Joh said. “And that’s a real struggle for people in a democracy to figure out. Police can go as far as they want, but what do communities want?”

Baltimore police officials maintain the aerial surveillance program is just an extension of CitiWatch, its street-level closed circuit television system. But according to Anne McKenna, a visiting law professor at Penn State University and a national expert on technology and surveillance, the “breadth and scope” of Baltimore’s aerial surveillance program raises new questions that are nowhere near settled in case law. And when you take the department’s reported aggregation of social media posts, overlay it with aerial surveillance and closed circuit TV footage, “Well, you’ve really created Big Brother,” McKenna said.

But Tara Huffman, director of Criminal and Juvenile Justice at the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, actually sees the city’s police commissioner, Kevin Davis, who took over not long after Gray’s death, as someone who genuinely understands the importance of reform. Which makes the surveillance revelations all the more surprising. “It seemed completely contradictory to the actions we’ve seen Commissioner Davis take,” Huffman told VICE.

Baltimore, of course, is continuing to struggle with gun violence—the Sun reports there have been 215 homicides already this year, and the police’s clearance rate for solving murder cases has tended to be dreadfully low. But the connection between aerial oversight and catching violent criminals isn’t always so clean-cut.

“I think what is alarming—and I think it’s fair to say uniquely alarming about what we’ve seen going on in Baltimore—is there’s been a massive investment of resources to monitor speech and protest,” said Lee Rowland, the Senior Staff Attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. “Exercising your First Amendment right is not probable cause, it’s not reason for suspicion. That the police would be directing their investigative resources to fly over protests or spend their days on Facebook looking for speech when there’s been no complaint or evidence of a crime, that is a use of power we should call out as wrong.”

Challenges remain for Baltimore residents, as the deadline for a consent decree with the Department of Justice draws near and opposition from the police union looms large. But most glaring of all to some observers is the fact that the police department continues to argue that tracking social media and conducting aerial surveillance shouldn’t even bother people.

“The community’s reaction to the surveillance helps to underscore just how fractured the relationship is, just how deep the distrust, the resentment, the suspicions run,” said Huffman. “The community is in a position where transparency is the order of the day.”

Under Armour’s Slam-Dunk Deal

Originally published in Slate on June 20th, 2016.
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It’s been a lucrative couple of years for Kevin Plank, CEO of Under Armour, the country’s second-largest maker of sports apparel. His company’s revenue has grown by more than 20 percent for 24 consecutive quarters, and its savvy sponsorship deals—with NBA MVP Steph Curry, pro golfer Jordan Spieth, and ballet dancer Misty Copeland—have turned the brand into a powerhouse that now can plausibly be mentioned in the same breath as Nike and Adidas. Under Armour’s expansion into health and fitness technology has even placed it in competition with the likes of Apple and Google.

Just as ambitious are Plank’s efforts in Baltimore, where Under Armour’s headquarters have been stationed since 1998. As part of an effort to grow the company’s HQ staff—from its current headcount of about 2,000 employees to 10,000—Plank is seeking to redevelop some 260 acres of mostly empty industrial land on the south Baltimore peninsula. In addition to a new Under Armour headquarters, Plank hopes to create what would amount to an entire new waterfront neighborhood, complete with shopping, dining, office space, parks, and nearly 14,000 residential units. It’s a real estate development project that could transform the city.

The area Plank has his eyes on, known as Port Covington, has been an underused eyesore for decades. But while many in Baltimore’s political class are cheering the project’s potential to create new jobs and stimulate the local economy, there’s good reason to worry that if the plan goes forward, it could end up leaving the city’s most vulnerable residents worse off than they already are, all while saddling the city with risk it can’t afford.

The problem is that Plank, despite being a self-made billionaire, wants a lot of help to make his vision for Port Covington a reality. To that end, his real estate firm, Sagamore, has asked the city of Baltimore for a record-breaking $535 million in so-called tax increment financing. TIFs, as these types of loans are known, are used to fund infrastructure by selling municipal bonds to private investors, and then property taxes generated by the new development are used to pay them back. Though beloved by titans of commercial real estate, TIFs tend to draw scrutiny because they divert so much money away from a city’s general fund. MuniCap, a consulting firm that Sagamore hired to analyze its TIF application, projects that Plank’s development would not yield property tax revenue for Baltimore’s coffers until about 2040, even as the site would require substantial city resources in the interim.

The size of the TIF that Plank has requested is unprecedented for Baltimore. At more than half a billion dollars, it would be the third-largest TIF deal for a private company in U.S. history. And though the money it would raise would go toward funding improvements like parks, roadways, and bike paths, rather than Under Armour’s new headquarters, Sagamore’s project in Baltimore must also be understood as a tool that would help fuel Under Armour’s continued growth.

At a time when Baltimore is still reeling from the mass unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray in police custody last year, the deal—as it’s currently structured—strikes many locals as a handout to the well-heeled. They have a point.

“[We are] outraged that, one year after the world bore witness to the decades of disinvestment in poor neighborhoods and communities of color, city leaders would respond by bending over backwards to back a $535 million playground for the rich,” Charly Carter, the executive director of Maryland Working Families, a progressive political advocacy group, says. “This is the new Jim Crow—black and brown families subsidizing wealthy developers while our own neighborhoods crumble.”

Baltimore has a long record of inequitable public investment, with political leaders financing flashy projects in mostly white areas and profits rarely trickling back into the poor, black communities that need funding most. The fear now being expressed by local progressive organizations, housing activists, and labor unions is that, for all the prosperity it will bring Kevin Plank and Under Armour, Sagamore’s TIF plan may turn out to be just another chapter in Baltimore’s history of bad development deals.

                                                                       *   *    *

The campaign to remake Port Covington has been aggressive and well-funded. Sagamore has already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on marketing the development to the public, and its forceful slogan—“#WeWill build it”—suggests that the project is a fait accompli.

Which isn’t far off the mark. The Baltimore Development Corp., a public-private agency, approved Plank’s $535 million TIF request in March, and the city’s Board of Finance backed it in April. Now all it needs is the Baltimore City Council’s final approval, which could come as early as August. Activists have urged the council to postpone its vote to give the public more time to comb through the 545-page proposal. But according to Councilman Carl Stokes, who heads the body’s economic development committee, Sagamore wants the deal approved by the end of the summer.

Tom Geddes, the CEO of Plank Industries, which serves as Plank’s private-investment vehicle, denies that Sagamore’s TIF request is anything more than a loan from outside investors to fund public infrastructure. “Some have mischaracterized the TIF as a ‘subsidy’ or a tax break. It is anything but,” he tells me. “There are no tax breaks for developers involved. There are no subsidies. There are no handouts.”

That’s semantics. There’s little question that Sagamore would benefit from the deal—MuniCap reported that Plank and his investors would earn $400 million more on the development with TIF financing than they would without. On top of the TIF money, the Port Covington project would be eligible for more than $760 million in additional tax breaks. As Barbara Samuels, a fair housing lawyer with the Maryland American Civil Liberties Union, has said, the idea that Sagamore is asking for anything but a subsidy is an insult to the public’s intelligence. “They claim it’s not a tax break, but it most assuredly is a tax break,” says Stokes.

Subsidies are meant to generate benefits for cities and are usually reserved for projects that would be too difficult to fund absent government financing. But right now, it’s not at all clear that Baltimore would benefit enough from the Port Covington deal to warrant such a massive public investment.

There’s no doubt the city needs more jobs. Nearly 7 percent of Baltimoreans are unemployed, and for young black men, that figure is 37 percent. The city certainly feels indebted to Kevin Plank and Under Armour, too—few other esteemed companies offer comparable employment opportunities for locals. Yet according to Sagamore’s own TIF application, after it’s built, Baltimore residents are expected to fill just a third of the nearly 35,000 permanent full- and part-time jobs projected for Port Covington; the rest of the new employees would live outside the city. And there’s no guarantee, under Plank’s current terms, that they would even earn a living wage. Baltimore’s minimum wage is currently $8.25 per hour and is supposed to hit $10.10 by 2018. A living wage in the city for a childless adult is $12.42 per hour.

Community activists also worry that the proposed Port Covington plan would exacerbate racial segregation and do nothing to address Baltimore’s affordable-housing crisis. While Sagamore has touted its (nonbinding) goal of making 10 percent of its residential units affordable, the company defines its market for affordable housing as families earning 80 percent of the area median income of $86,700 per year. Baltimore City’s median income, though, is $42,000. Carol Ott, the director of the Baltimore-based Housing Policy Watch, says if Sagamore is serious about making its units affordable, it needs to use numbers that actually reflect the city’s population.

There’s also the matter of how the TIF deal could impact state funding for city schools. The Baltimore Sun reported that the city’s rapid economic growth spurred by local tax breaks and smaller-scale TIFs led to an automatic $24 million cut in state aid to public schools over the past year. This happened because the state assumes Baltimore’s wealth has gone up—based on property values and resident income—but because many of these valuable buildings pay no property tax, little new revenue actually goes into the city’s coffers. Since the Port Covington TIF is far larger than any other project Baltimore has undertaken before, the risk of severe fiscal drain looms large. For now, the state has agreed to not reduce education funding for three years as the Maryland State Department of Education reviews its school funding formula.

“The problem is, in three years the state could very well say, ‘Hey local jurisdictions, this is on you. You get no break.’ Or, ‘You get only a partial break, since you decided this TIF project was in your interest,’ ” says Melissa Schober, whose daughter attends an elementary school in the city. “As a parent, I don’t know what we would do except move, the cut would be so severe and substantial.”

There’s another reason to be skeptical. Port Covington would be Sagamore’s first major undertaking in the world of commercial real estate. Besides the ongoing construction of a new hotel and the transformation of an old garage into office space, Plank’s real estate firm lacks a track record in development. “This is a brand new developer, we don’t know what they’re capable of,” says Lawrence Brown, an assistant professor at Morgan State University. “I don’t know why the city would feel comfortable giving so much of its development future to one entity like this.”

* * *

If Sagamore gets its way, its nearly 600-page TIF application would be approved in just a few weeks—well before the next round of political leadership takes office in January. But local activists and labor unions want to see the plan slowed down, to ensure their concerns about quality jobs, affordable housing, and public education are properly addressed.

If local officials insist on moving forward, says Maryland Working Families director Charly Carter, advocates will demand a transparent process; a plan to help struggling neighborhoods near the development; and a “good jobs guarantee” with local hiring, full benefits, and living wages. “Most importantly,” she adds, advocates want a “clawback provision”—a contractual agreement with Sagamore—ensuring that “if the development falls through, our poorest residents aren’t left holding the bag.” (For example, if the expected jobs don’t pan out, or the property tax generated is lower than anticipated, or the developer walks away—local governments would still have to ensure that they don’t default on their bond payments and that Sagamore retains some responsibility.)

City leaders are discussing clawback provisions and other safeguards to protect Baltimore taxpayers if Port Covington goes belly up or underperforms, but at this point it’s not really clear what teeth these protections would have. In other municipalities, TIFs have left taxpayers with unanticipated shortfalls or have been used fraudulently by politicians with little oversight. In Chicago, nearly half of the $1.3 billion in TIF funds spent by the Rahm Emanuel administration between 2011 and 2014 went toward downtown gentrifying neighborhoods while blighted communities received little to no investment and saw decreased tax revenue for schools and public services. While those specific TIF funds may never have gone toward needy neighborhoods, these acts of financial engineering, which can place extra burdens on cities and on strained budgets, tend to only benefit the kinds of projects that make developers very rich.

“I think it’s being fast-tracked, it’s unfair to the taxpayer, and proper due diligence cannot be made so quickly on such a complex piece of legislation,” says Councilman Stokes. “It’s quite frankly unethical and doesn’t allow us to do any independent market analysis. We’re not facing a legal deadline, but we’re under a lot of pressure from the developer.”

Sagamore, which recently started a Change.org petition in support of its project, obviously doesn’t see it that way. “We have received tremendous and enthusiastic support from stakeholders across the city,” says Geddes, the Plank Industries CEO.“We’re excited to be a part of building something great in this city and proud that Baltimore is home to one of the largest urban renewal projects in America right now, a redevelopment that will bring tens of thousands of jobs at a time when the city needs a major economic boost.”

When I ask why the project is barreling forward so quickly, Sagamore’s president, Marc Weller, says that if Sagamore’s TIF is not approved as soon as possible, the city “may miss out on hundreds of millions of federal dollars that require TIF approval.” Specifically, he cites federal grant programs, like the Department of Transportation’s FASTLANE grant, which require cities to make local matching contributions in order to access funds.

But Weller made clear that government subsidies aren’t the only reason for the rush and that Under Armour’s growth is of pressing concern. The company, he says, “has simply outgrown its space” and therefore needs to “aggressively move forward with the construction of a new campus.”

Asked if the company will leave the city if the TIF deal falls though, Geddes answered, “the primary purpose of the Port Covington redevelopment is to allow Under Armour to grow in Baltimore City, and to keep the many direct and related jobs in Baltimore.” #WeWill see.

 

 

Baltimore’s Next Mayor Doesn’t Want to Talk About Racism

Originally published in Slate on April 29th, 2016.
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Following Tuesday night’s primary, Catherine Pugh is now the presumptive next mayor of Baltimore, having captured 37 percent of Democrats’ votes. Hers is a city that remains deeply impoverished and racially segregated, and in the wake of the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray it has become central to the growing national focus on police violence. Yet race is the one topic Pugh has shown herself strangely hesitant to talk about.

Last month, Pugh’s campaign released an ad featuring a supporter—Francis X. Kelly, a former Maryland state senator—discussing why Pugh would be the best candidate to lead the city. Kelly enthused about Pugh’s ability to bring people together. “There’s too much talk of racism going on now,” he told voters. “The word racism has got to be erased from our vocabulary.”

Pugh’s campaign was criticized for the ad—including by upstart mayoral candidate and Black Lives Matter figure DeRay Mckesson, who asked Pugh on Twitter if this meant she was afraid to talk about racism. Whether or not she fears it, over the course of her campaign, Pugh, who is black, demonstrated clearly that she has little desire to directly confront the racism afflicting the city. While other candidates spoke about the need to reduce racial bias among Baltimore’s police force, Pugh’s policy platform was filled with platitudes like “recognize the uniqueness of each community and provide strategies for reducing crime that offers results.”

Aside from being a Maryland state senator, Pugh leads a public relations consulting firm and has said one of her top mayoral priorities is to improve Baltimore’s image. She’s advocated for a marketing campaign to “Celebrate, Celebrate, Celebrate the greatness that is Baltimore.” She wants to “help us understand” that every neighborhood and person matters. She wants us to champion the city’s “diversity.”

There’s a lot that’s wonderful about Baltimore, but the fact is that almost every major issue facing the city today is a racial one. Not even a PR professional like Pugh can expect to avoid that. When she likely becomes mayor of this heavily Democratic city—where being born black correlates with significantly worse life outcomes—she’ll have to contend with the growing anger and frustration that’s been percolating across the city.

Baltimore’s not an outlier, but in some ways it experiences economic inequality and racism more dramatically than other cities in the United States. More than 7 percent of the city is unemployed, but for young black men, that figure hits 37 percent. Baltimore had a per-capita record of 344 homicides in 2015, one of the highest murder rates in the country. New research released last spring by Harvard economists found that of the nation’s 100 largest counties, Baltimore ranked dead last when it comes to facilitating upward mobility. For every year a poor boy spends growing up in Baltimore, the economists said, his earnings as an adult fall by 1.5 percent.

This week, Baltimore commemorated the one-year anniversary of Freddie Gray’s funeral, and the notorious riots that scarred the city that very same night. The criminal trials for the six officers charged with the death of Freddie Gray are set to resume next month and continue until at least October. There will likely be more protests if locals feel justice hasn’t been sufficiently served in the courtroom. If ever Baltimore needs leaders who can talk frankly about racism, it will be when those verdicts come down.

As Baltimore faces a critical juncture, with residents still reeling from the riots last spring, Pugh has largely ignored these realities. She claims running for mayor is her “calling”—but her campaign platform is vague, her political record is unclear, and her notable lack of interest in reckoning with racism is worrisome. It’s a trait that won’t just hamper her on highly visible issues like police violence.

Pugh had few words to say on the campaign trail about the abandoned light rail project that Maryland’s Republican governor, Larry Hogan, canceled last summer—a mass transit initiative that was widely anticipated to improve mobility for some of Baltimore’s most poor and isolated residents. In December, the NAACP filed a federal civil rights complaint, alleging that canceling the light rail was racially discriminatory, as the governor diverted funds intended for the project to roads and bridges elsewhere. But Pugh has said she wants to “take the politics out of transit funding”—which has never happened for Baltimore and probably never will.

Catherine Pugh wants to make Baltimore a more “business-friendly” place and “promote [the] downtown core”—the same downtown core that has benefited from hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks and subsidies over the decades, with little profit trickling back into Baltimore’s black and beleaguered neighborhoods. Thus far, Pugh has not demonstrated that she plans to alter the city’s inequitable approach to development, which matters as city leaders will soon have to decide if they should issue more than half a billion dollars in tax increment financing to apparel company Under Armour, which wants to construct new headquarters in the city.

There are still seven months before Pugh is expected to win the general election, and one hopes she will continue to face pressure from voters and the press about her record and her intentions. Does she really think we should “erase racism” from our vocabularies? Was it ethical to collect campaign contributions from lobbyists who appeared before her as she served on the Senate Finance Committee?

A year ago, Baltimore’s current mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, called those protesting Freddie Gray’s death in West Baltimore “thugs” who were “trying to tear down what so many have fought for.” Catherine Pugh hasn’t used such explicitly ugly rhetoric, but she also she hasn’t convinced the public that she wouldn’t.

For a country that has been largely absorbed in presidential politics over the last 15 months, paying attention to a mayoral race in a midsize city might not seem so important. But if inequality is one of the most significant issues facing America today—and 75 percent of voters who lean Democratic say it is—and if concerns about racism and race relations in the U.S. are rising—which they are—then there may not be a city more important to watch than Baltimore, Maryland.

Arrests and Suspensions Are Out of Control in Baltimore Schools

Originally published in VICE on March 9th, 2016.
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An eight-second video was released last week showing a Baltimore school police officer attacking an unarmed student while another cop stood by and watched. The clip went viral and spurred national outrage, as well as calls for a federal investigation. The two officers, Anthony Spence and Saverna Bias, turned themselves in Tuesday night to face second-degree assault and misconduct in office charges—Spence is also charged with second-degree child abuse—and had posted bail by early Wednesday. But with criminal trials still pending for the six cops charged over the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray last year, the footage has stoked an already strained conversation around policing in Baltimore City.

Upon the clip’s release, politicians and advocates quickly began to criticize the city’s ill-defined school police policies, pointing out that there are no public arrest statistics, including who gets busted, why, and whether those incidents might have been handled outside the criminal justice system. There’s also little or no oversight of the school police budget and officers’ use of force. All of which is especially alarming given that policing aside, Maryland actually has some of the most progressive school discipline policies in the country—at least on paper.

Still, a lack of leadership and a persistent culture of criminalization within public schools have the city suspending, expelling, and arresting students too often—and in discriminatory fashion.

Baltimore’s unique place in America’s school discipline hierarchy emerged over the past decade. In 2004, the city’s school issued more than 26,000 suspensions in a school district of 88,000. Alarmed city advocates began speaking out, forming networks to push for disciplinary alternatives, and fighting for district leaders to reckon with the glaring suspension data. Research has long shown that excessive suspensions and expulsions are tied to higher rates of school absence, school drop-outs, and academic failure. Suspended students often sit around at home, or in low-quality alternative programs, falling further behind on their studies. There’s also evidence that school suspensions lead to higher rates of arrest and juvenile detentions, fueling what is commonly referred to as the “school to prison pipeline.”

In 2007, Baltimore hired a new school CEO, Andres Alonso, who began overhauling the district’s school discipline policies. He worked to scale back not only the scope of offenses that could warrant an out-of-school suspension, but also expanded the number of restorative alternatives to keep kids in class and on top of their school work.

The results were dramatic. During the 2009-2010 school year, the district issued fewer than 10,000 suspensions, a decrease of more than 50 percent from 2004. The suspensions were also significantly shorter, and graduation rates went up, particularly for young black men.

“One of the things that really sets us apart from other school districts is that students can no longer be suspended for low-level and ambiguous infractions, such as disrespect,” explains Karen Webber, director of the Education and Youth Development at the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, a local think tank and advocacy group. “Before, a child might say something edgy, and if an administrator didn’t appreciate what was said or how it was stated, that child could be sent home for five days.”

Advocates around the state began to push for similar reforms, and in 2014 the State Board of Education approved new regulations to reduce the numbers of suspensions and expulsions across Maryland. The new policies encouraged teachers and principals to keep students in the classroom whenever possible and to promote alternative disciplinary measures. And the feds took notice: In light of Baltimore’s substantial drop in suspensions, and the statewide work done around discipline reform, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder came to Baltimore in 2014 to unveil the first set of national school discipline guidelines.

But even as suspensions have plummeted, critics point to a series of disturbing school police scandals and argue that Baltimore City still hasn’t implemented many of the progressive policies passed statewide two years ago. The district hired a new CEO that year, Dr. Gregory Thornton, who has made less of a fuss about school discipline reform.

“You can have the most promising policies on the books but rules are only as good as their implementation,” says Monique Dixon, deputy director of policy at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

“While there’s been great work done to write these policies, those changes have not been filtered down to the staff level—nobody has been retrained,” adds Jenny Egan, a juvenile public defender in Baltimore.

For example, some suspended Baltimore students languish for months outside of school just because the district failed to make a final decision about their punishment. Neeta Pal, a legal fellow at the Maryland Public Defender’s office, says that when the district leaves students in this bureaucratic limbo—indefinitely suspended—it violates both state law and the US constitution.

One such student was 15-year-old Kuran Johnson, a ninth grader with a disability who was suspended this past October. Johnson spent four months in an alternative program, and was only allowed to return back to a traditional public school a few weeks ago after Nicole Joseph, an attorney with the Maryland Disability Law Center, threatened to sue. “This is their way to get rid of kids,” Sabrina Newby, Johnson’s grandmother, tells me over the phone. “They feel these kids are so easy to suspend, and then they wonder why kids end up dropping out or wind up in juvenile facilities.”

Following the standoff between students and police back during the April 2015 Freddie Gray protests, Karl Perry, a Baltimore high school principal, penned a memo in which he attributed the local uprising in part to their “soft code of conduct.” He promised a “return to zero-tolerance enforcement,” and within two months, he was hired to be the district’s Chief Supports Officer—overseeing, among other things, suspensions and school police.

Joseph wrote an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun criticizing Perry’s remarks, arguing that zero-tolerance policies “feed the school-to-prison pipeline” and increase the likelihood at-risk students will be excluded from school. She called for reforms like increasing the number of mental health providers, promoting positive behavior interventions, and increasing engaging curriculum and job skills training.

She points out that in Baltimore, despite all the changes and national attention, black students and those with disabilities are still suspended at higher rates than the general student population.

“Yes, suspension numbers have gone down, in almost every district across the state, but the disproportionately is not going down,” Joseph says in an interview. “Both by race, and also for students with disabilities, these minority groups are not experiencing the same reduction in harsh discipline that non-disabled and white kids are.”

Officials with the Baltimore City Public Schools did not return repeated requests for comment on Perry’s remarks, on students left in suspension limbo, and on whether the district feels it has adequately implemented the state’s discipline regulations. Meanwhile, critics see the suspensions, expulsions, arrests and abuse cases as part of the same problem—a school culture that tries to kick students out rather than engage them where they are, as they are.

“We know so many of our kids have serious challenges, and one of the goals of our schools should be to address them, to help them, and not to punish them,” Egan says. “We have to change the culture so that schools actually take kids as they come. We can’t just pass the buck.”

Why DeRay Mckesson’s Mayoral Candidacy Will Be Defined Far More By Education than Policing

Originally published in Slate on February 12th, 2016.
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N
ews of mayoral runs usually don’t merit the attention that Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson got when he announced his candidacy for Baltimore’s top job last week. His campaign had leaked the story to the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Guardian in advance, and within 24 hours, he had already crowd-funded $40,000.

National publications began speculating how Mckesson’s candidacy would elevate police reform onto Baltimore’s political agenda, the implication being that it wasn’t already a top priority in the race. It absolutely is: Nearly 10 months after the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray in police custody, and after one of the most crime-ridden years Baltimore’s seen in decades, few topics are more prominent. So what, exactly, will Mckesson bring to the election?

Mckesson joins 12 other Democrats competing in April’s primary, the winner of which will almost certainly go on to win in November. But though Mckesson’s large Twitter following may be eager to see how he’ll carry his national Black Lives Matter work into Charm City, I suspect they’ll be in for a surprise. What’s going to distinguish Mckesson probably won’t be policing and criminal justice at all—it’ll be education.

Nationally, school reform is an issue that confounds political partisans, opening fault lines among progressive allies and uniting constituencies that typically never agree. Reform is even more complicated in Baltimore; the city stands as a distinctively unusual landscape for education politics next to other, similar urban centers.

Already, Mckesson has signaled that he plans to campaign on education, which isn’t surprising since that’s where the 30-year-old cut his professional teeth. After graduating college, he spent two years teaching sixth graders in Brooklyn followed by several stints with education nonprofits, reform organizations, and administrative district jobs. But Mckesson brings to the race some national baggage, which he’ll have to confront as he tries to make his case to Baltimore voters. Specifically, residents have already raised questions about his ties to national reform groups like TNTP and Teach for America, as well as his enthusiastic support for charter schools.

So far, Mckesson has largely dismissed these concerns. He’s reminded the public that he’s spent several years working with the Baltimore school district as an administrator focused on staffing personnel. Still, he’ll have to reckon with local education politics that have changed substantially since he left his job back in 2013.

For example, a few months ago a coalition of charter operators filed a lawsuit against the school district over funding—a highly controversial move that’s divided Baltimore public school families. The city is also in the midst of closing down more than two-dozen schools, and the next mayor will need to determine what becomes of the vacant buildings. Will they be sold off? Will they be leased to charter schools? Will they be repurposed into some other civic entity? These decisions are sure to intensify an already-fraught K-12 landscape.

The main thing to grasp about Baltimore’s education environment is that it’s pretty unique. All charter teachers are unionized, unlike most charter employees in other states. Moreover, Maryland charter schools—which are predominately mom-and-pop institutions, not larger charter-school chains—are subject to more oversight and regulation than charters elsewhere. While reformers say they’d like to see Maryland charters freed from these legal constraints, supporters of the status quo say that tougher oversight explains why Maryland charter schools have never wrought the kind of fraud, mismanagement, and abuse found in other jurisdictions.

What Mckesson will soon have to decide is whether he is committed to keeping Baltimore’s charter sector as is—with unionized teachers, a close relationship to the school district, and substantial oversight—or join the coalition of charter operators and national education reform groups that seek to significantly revamp chartering in Maryland. That decision may also force him to choose between competing groups that may try to back him. Some national charter networks have expressed disinterest in setting up shop in Baltimore, namely because they don’t want to work within the school district and employ unionized teachers. The National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, a D.C.-based organization, consistently ranks Maryland as the worst charter school state in the country, largely for these same reasons.

Yet within Baltimore, both traditional teachers and charter teachers alike strongly support Maryland’s charter law—and rallied together last year to protest reformers’ attempts to change it. The Center for Education Reform, another national group, hired lobbyists to push for loosening Maryland’s regulations. They were ultimately unsuccessful, but the fight is expected to resurface again soon.

On Friday, Mckesson released his education campaign platform—a substantive list of proposals ranging from expanding early childhood education to strengthening college and career readiness programs. He calls for increasing the school district’s transparency (a common theme among all the candidates) and more equitable state financing. He notably doesn’t mention anything about unions or charter schools, but Mckesson won’t be able to shy away from that charged debate for long.

When news broke that Mckesson would be running, some Baltimore activists, particularly those who have been fighting for police reform, protested on Twitter—a surprise to some outside the city, given his national stature within Black Lives Matter. Among other things, locals argue that Mckesson lacks sufficient relationships with the communities he now seeks to lead.

In many ways, their critiques mirror those that veteran public school educators level at Teach for America—that outside young teachers without roots in the cities they work in displace those who have more of a right, and need, to be there. And despite Mckesson’s early campaign efforts to brand himself as a “son of Baltimore,” some local activists have said they’ve rarely seen him fighting alongside them in the causes they’ve been invested in for years, like building independent black institutions and weakening the Maryland police union. (Mckesson defended himself against these charges, saying “there are many ways to engage in the work.”)

A few weeks ago, 11 Democratic candidates gathered together for a mayoral forum to discuss their political vision for Baltimore. One audience member asked the candidates, “How will you stop police from killing black people?” Answers varied somewhat, but all in all, they were broadly similar. The candidates spoke of strengthening civilian review boards, getting body cameras on all police, transforming the way Baltimore recruits and trains officers, establishing more transparent accountability systems, pushing for more police to formally live within the city, mandating cultural diversity training and regular psychiatric evaluations, and calling for convictions for those who break the rules.

In other words, Mckesson is entering a crowded field of candidates who likely share many of his police reform policy goals. Some hope that Mckesson’s candidacy will encourage others to articulate even sharper campaign proposals. Perhaps, and that would be a good thing. But it was already an issue that no candidate was really ignoring—and certainly one that no future mayor can expect to avoid.

So despite to Black Lives Matter’s national work, that aspect of his candidacy is unlikely to be too disruptive in the race. It’ll be where his campaign intersects with the school-reform movement, and specifically how local education politics rub up against his national ties, that could really shake things up.

Roots & Branches charter will remain open, but public school closures loom large

Originally published in Baltimore City Paper on February 3rd, 2016.
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Last night the Baltimore City school board voted to renew Roots & Branches charter school for another three years. It was a victory for the parents and teachersworking to save their progressive elementary, though many other local schools were not so lucky. In early January the school board voted to close four schools—Westside Elementary School, Baltimore Community High School, Maritime Industries Academy High School, and the Maryland Academy of Technology & Health Sciences, a charter school. These four, plus Roots & Branches School, another charter, were recommended for closure in early November.

“Every time you hit adversity you learn something, and I think we’re going to look at some of how we teach math across the board,” says Anne Rossi, the principal of Roots & Branches, which de-emphasizes testing in favor of an arts-infused curriculum. “I think we want to do some professional development, our math scores were not as good as our reading, but I am really optimistic that we are going to be able to show the district improved scores.”

The school closings come on the heels of a tumultuous year, both within the public school community and Baltimore City more broadly. Westside Elementary is located in Penn North, where the bulk of the Freddie Gray protests took place, and many felt shuttering a civic institution was the very last thing the beleaguered community needed.

“I will plead to you one more time please save Westside Elementary School,” state Del. Antonio Hayes asked the school board in November. “There [are] two major institutions in the Penn North community, that’s Westside Elementary School and a very thriving drug treatment center.” Students who would have enrolled at Westside will merge with students at another renovated school.

Alison Perkins-Cohen, the executive director of New Initiatives for Baltimore City Public Schools, says that when making decisions about school closures, the district thinks about which communities could most benefit from better facilities. “With Westside, I know the community was concerned about divestment, but for me it’s the opposite,” she says. “We’re really investing. Westside is closing because they’re getting a new school—we intentionally prioritized neighborhoods with challenges, so they are getting new buildings first.”

Nearly half of the city’s school buildings were built in the 1960s or earlier, and almost all require extensive repair, renovation, or replacement. According to industry standards, approximately 70 percent of the district’s buildings are considered to be in “poor” condition. And they were constructed at a time when the number of public school students enrolled in the district was much greater—upward of 200,000. Today, with roughly 85,000 public school students, there’s a lot of excess space. (Fewer students also means decreased funding, and the district has had some close calls with misreporting how many students are enrolled in the past.)

In 2010, the ACLU of Maryland published a report outlining the miserable state of Baltimore schools, citing things like damaged windows that don’t open, facility doors that don’t close, and badly lit hallways. “Depending on the season, teachers often struggle to engage drowsy children due to the excessive heat, and faulty boiler systems compel some children to wear coats during class in the winter,” the report stated. “Old lead plumbing has forced City Schools to restrict the use of water fountains and instead provide bottled water.” Decades of social science research has shown how unsafe and inadequate school facilities can negatively affect students’ academic performance—particularly when a school has poor temperature control, poor indoor air quality, and poor lighting.

Though advocates have been paying attention to the deteriorating school facilities for some time, inequitable state policy has made it difficult for leaders to take action. In 2004, the state reported that Baltimore had the greatest need among all Maryland school districts to bring its facilities up to acceptable levels of condition—yet legislators failed to target funding accordingly. Baltimore’s lack of wealth also inhibits it from borrowing money, while suburban districts can incur debt to fund capital improvement projects. So Baltimore not only has the greatest need, but also faces the most difficulty raising money. According to the ACLU, Baltimore’s capital budget “pales in comparison” to other large counties.

Following the report’s release, advocates who had been mobilizing for increased school funding—under the banner of the Baltimore Education Coalition—began to shift gears and focus more specifically on school facilities. The ACLU called for $2.8 billion to fund all the needed repairs and capital improvements. (It later revised this figure to $2.4 billion.) By spring 2011, the Baltimore Education Coalition formally joined the ACLU’s “Transform Baltimore: Build Schools, Build Neighborhoods” campaign, and together they pressured the city and state to pay for school improvements.

Baltimore, which is more dependent on state aid than any other district in Maryland, simply cannot fund enough capital improvements on its own. But state legislators worry about wasteful spending, and are loathe to invest in schools with too few students inside them.

“There is a statewide rule that says that any school building that is less than 60 percent occupied cannot receive state school renovation funds,” says Frank Patinella, an advocate with the ACLU’s Education Reform Project. “Some buildings might have broken boilers and inconsistent heat, but the state does not give money, no matter how poor the condition, if it is an underutilized building.” (“Underutilized” is the controversial term used to describe buildings that are deemed too large for the number of students enrolled. According to the district, Baltimore currently has a 79 percent school utilization rate—and its goal is to ultimately reach 86 percent, through school closures.)

“The state feels particularly strongly about the high number of Baltimore school buildings compared to student population and puts ongoing pressure on City Schools to close more and more buildings,” says Bebe Verdery, the director of the ACLU’s Education Reform Project. “I’ve never been to a hearing in Annapolis in which particular legislators did not rail against Baltimore City schools and the state agencies to require more closures faster.”

Perkins-Cohen says that in order to get state funding, the district had to develop a cohesive plan that indicated which schools would close, which would be renovated, and in what order.

Their efforts succeeded, and by 2013 the legislature passed the Baltimore City Public Schools Construction and Revitalization Act, which allows the state to leverage $1.1 billion in construction costs. This funding enables Baltimore to make headway on its “21st Century Plan“—a commitment to fully renovate or build roughly 50 schools, and to close 26 schools. The state, city, and school district have to each contribute $20 million annually over the next 30 years, though equity advocates say the state should be paying a greater share of these costs.

Many community members have raised concerns with the 21st Century Plan, and question the way it’s being implemented.

According to Jessica Shiller, an urban education professor at Towson University, some communities—like Penn North, Edmonson Village, and Hollins Market—will lose more than 40 percent of their classroom seats from the school closures. These communities all have poverty rates that exceed the citywide average.

“There needs to be an outcry, I take every opportunity I can in school board meetings to tell them they’re doing the wrong thing with these closures,” says Helen Atkinson, the executive director of the Teachers Democracy Project, a local group that engages teachers in public policy issues and social justice.

“One of the main things we find is that mobility is just bad for kids,” says Shiller, who has been doing independent research on school closures. “Moving kids around too much has a negative effect on their academic achievement, and closing a school exacerbates mobility, especially for poor kids.”

Another problem, Shiller notes, is that students often wind up in schools that are worse than the ones they left. Though the 21st Century Plan promises that all kids will attend superior, renovated schools eventually, observers note that children who used to attend the high-performing Langston Hughes Elementary School now attend worse schools, and the displaced students will be shuffled to yet another struggling school during the 2017-2018 school year. In addition, Shiller says kids frequently encounter bullying and violence at their new schools, and teachers are often ill-prepared to handle an influx of new students.

Perkins-Cohen says the district’s long-term plan is to provide professional development to teachers working in merger schools, and to focus on “creating cultures and climates” to help students transition more smoothly.

School closures have become a flashpoint in education reform debates across the country, evoking particularly heated opposition in cities like Newark, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Last year, parents in Chicago led a 34-day hunger strike to save a local high school that was slated for closure. Parents and community organizations have also filed federal civil rights complaints under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, claiming that school closures in various cities have had a racially discriminatory impact on poor, black students. In December, the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education reached a groundbreaking resolution with Newark Public Schools to help those who may have been negatively impacted by Newark’s closures.

But school closings in Baltimore have not garnered the same kind of mobilized opposition.

Perkins-Cohen says she thinks the politics have played out differently in Baltimore because the district has worked really hard to engage the communities in a thoughtful way. The district’s comprehensive strategy, she says, involves publicizing the 21st Century Plan, making annual school closure announcements several months before the school board votes, organizing robocalls to parents, sending letters home, running ads in newspapers, holding meetings with both teachers and the community, and speaking at school board meetings.

Shiller says her research suggests the public is nowhere near as informed as the district thinks. “While the city did do public forums, they really glossed over this closure information. They said you know we’ll get you wireless internet and air conditioning, and we have to make sure that every school is fully utilized. But the way it was told was to really de-emphasize the closures,” she says. “When I did research it was very clear that it wasn’t communicated very well.”

As of now, it’s unclear what will become of the school buildings that get shut down.

When the district closes down a school, the buildings then return to the city, which owns them. Perkins-Cohen says the city is already thinking about uses for the buildings, in part by asking various city agencies if they might have an interest in the facilities. Sometimes charter operators try to use the newly vacant buildings for their charter schools.

“If you think about it as just a school, then yes it does make sense to close them. Maintaining buildings is hugely expensive, and a city like Baltimore doesn’t have the money to support expenses that are unnecessary,” says Shiller. “But if you think about it from an urban planning perspective, and ask what a school is to a neighborhood, then it’s a very different conversation.” She points out that for many students, schools are where students access food, counseling, after-school programming, and even health care.

Education advocates worry the community won’t have a say in what ultimately happens to these buildings. There are fears that the process will lack transparency, and that buildings may even be left vacant, if nobody wants them. Shiller thinks that right now is a real chance for individuals to speak up with ideas on how to repurpose the buildings, and maybe even figure out new strategies to turn them into hubs of social services.

“The new mayor will be the one really central to making those decisions, and so this leadership change is a really excellent opportunity” for people to get involved in shaping the future, she says. Although some community members tried to save Langston Hughes Elementary School last year, Shiller believes their lack of political capital ultimately crippled the effort. “There were some very inspiring marches, and it got good coverage, but they lacked that political support,” she says. “To stop school closures there really may need to be more aggressive direct action.”

Some wonder whether political capital played a role in helping Roots & Branches to stay open this year. “While I can’t speak to the details of the Roots & Branches case, the fact that it was allowed to stay open adds to the impression that many parents have that charters are treated not just differently, but better,” says Edit Barry, a parent involved inPeople for Public Schools, a new grassroots advocacy group in Baltimore.

Rossi, the principal of Roots & Branches, says the Maryland Alliance of Public Charter Schools did not help them fight their closure recommendation. “I think the charter coalition was understandably cautious and did not throw any weight behind us,” she says. “I don’t know if they didn’t want to show favoritism for us over another charter, or if it’s the [closure] process they wanted to be cautious about protecting, but I will tell you they weren’t part of this effort to save our school.”

Opening up more charters within buildings of closed traditional schools may exacerbate existing tensions between charter advocates and traditional public school parents. Some claim that these closures might even be pretenses for charter school expansions; Atkinson notes that multiple charter operators have been trying to open up schools in communities targeted with school closures, some even angling for the Langston Hughes Elementary School building before it shut down.

“I think people in Baltimore just feel like they will get screwed,” says Shiller. “That’s their go-to feeling—that it’s probably going to be bad—but maybe we can make it a little less bad.”

Can Baltimore Recover from Its 2015 Murder Wave?

Originally published in VICE on January 6, 2016.
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For criminal justice activists, 2015 was an exhausting year. After high-profile police brutality incidents captured the public imagination at the tail-end of 2014, America had a new national conversation about racism to contend with. Protesters took to the streets across the country, chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot!” and “I can’t breathe!”; fresh instances of death and pain inflicted by police officers on (mostly) black civilians spread across social media every week; newspapers compiled databases of the number of people killed by cops; presidential candidates were asked to distinguish between “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter” on nationally-televised debates.

One of the responses to these protests from the law-and-order crowd was to ask if all this campaigning against police brutality was contributing to an increase in crime. This is the so-called “Ferguson Effect,” a theory suggesting that anti-cop rhetoric was creating a climate in which police could no longer effectively do their jobs. It remains a theory—the statistical evidence supporting a rise in crime rates is thin; last month, the Brennan Center for Justice, a public policy and law institute affiliated with New York University, published a report finding crime was roughly the same last year as it had been in 2014 in America’s largest cities.

That report, however, was scant comfort to Baltimore, a city where mistrust between the cops and the people they serve may have created some serious challenges. Charm City saw a per-capita record of 344 homicides in 2015, the highest total since 1993, when the city had 100,000 more people living in it, as the Baltimore Sun reported this month. In April, 25-year-old Freddie Gray died while in police custody, sparking weeks of Baltimore protests and unrest. In five of the eight months following Gray’s death, homicides surpassed 30 or 40 a month. Before the unrest, according to the paper, Baltimore had not witnessed 30 or more homicides in one month since June 2007.

All told, there were some 900 shootings in Baltimore last year, up some 75 percent from 2014—a violent crime spike unparalleled among the 30 largest cities in America, according to the Brennan Center’s analysis. Though Baltimore’s police and political leadership insist they are determined to make last year’s crime statistics an aberration, whether they’re planning to do so through tougher policing in 2016 remains to be seen. And with high-stakes local elections coming up, along with a legislative season where police reform will most certainly be on the table and months of trials left for the six officers charged with the death of Freddie Gray, Baltimore residents are not expecting closure to the unrest any time soon.

Speaking to the Sun, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis recently said he plans to pressure the state legislature to make possession of illegal firearms a felony, rather than a misdemeanor, and for police to hunt down gun traffickers. He also said he’s ramping up recruitment efforts for 200 vacancies in the police force, and trying to coax retired cops to come back to the department. Davis wants to increase street patrols, focus more on residential burglaries, and partner with other city agencies to prevent and solve crime. These priorities reflect some ugly statistics: The BPD’s homicide clearance rate dropped sharply in 2015; police solved only about 30 percent of all cases, and according to theSun, their 2015 clearance rate was less than half the 2014 national average—as well as some 15 percentage points below the BPD’s own average in recent years. Experts suspect that the lack of trust between the police and the community is a major contributing factor behind the low clearance rate. (The Baltimore Police Department did not return repeated requests for comment for this story.)

Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore City Police Officer and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, thinks that until the cops on trial for Freddie Gray’s death are acquitted, the BPD is not going to be able to do its job effectively. “It isn’t that these officers did something bad and got caught. It’s that they did exactly what they were told to do and are being prosecuted for it,” he says. “As long as cops feel like they can get criminally prosecuted for doing their job, you shouldn’t expect cops to be proactively policing.” He adds that winter offers a sort of natural reset button for communities, since crime tends to go down when the temperature drops. “It gives them an opportunity to feel like, OK, we’re starting over,” he says. “But the department is still understaffed and morale is in the tank.”

Tara Huffman, director of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Programs at Baltimore’s Open Society Institute (OSI), says her organization has been working closely with Commissioner Davis and Baltimore’s police to help them identify and reduce discriminatory practices within their department. This would hopefully help to restore some trust between the police and Baltimore residents. OSI will also be providing seed funding for a policing pilot program this year where officers will send people who appear to be suffering from an underlying drug addiction into a community-based treatment center rather than arresting them. The Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, (LEAD) was first developed in Seattle, and it helped to keep low-level offenders out of the criminal justice system while also getting them the aid they needed.

When asked whether she thinks the city has responded in a serious enough way to the unrest and its aftermath, Huffman acknowledged that there’s “a lot of talking” going on, including dialogue between people who don’t normally speak to each other. “There is room for progressive ideas and solutions that wouldn’t have gotten the same audience eight months ago,” she told me. “But we’re not seeing the fruit yet. I think we still have a ways to go until we see the fruit.”

The question of whether the city and state will be willing to make serious investments in poor Baltimore communities, a critical factor for reducing gun violence long-term, remains an open one. Just last month, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a federal complaint over the cancellation of a long-planned transit project in Baltimore, which would have primarily benefitted low-income blacks who lack quality transportation options. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan cancelled the project and diverted money to roads and highways elsewhere in the state. The city also massively underfunded its Operation Ceasefire program, a violence-reduction initiative that proved highly successful (if also controversial) in cities like New York. Baltimore’s Operation Ceasefire director resigned last spring in protest, citing insufficient resources and support. In addition, following the Freddie Gray protests, Governor Hogan cut Baltimore City’s public education funding by 3.3 percent.

Yet on Tuesday the governor traveled to West Baltimore to announce a nearly $700 million plan to tear down vacant buildings throughout the city and bring in new development over the next four years.

“I don’t see us policing ourselves out of this crisis. That has never worked before,” says Alex Elkins, a visiting historian at the University of Michigan who studies the police. “We need sustained engagement with hard-hit communities in order to establish a different pipeline, toward civic inclusion rather than banishment to jail and prison. To achieve that, a policy that attacks root causes is essential, ethically and strategically.”

“People are generally angry about a variety of things, and we have a community that makes promises but no real substantive investments,” adds Dayvon Love, co-founder of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle (LBS), a grassroots organization that advocates for the interests of black people in Baltimore. “This year we’re gonna see a lot more of what we saw in 2015. It won’t be an anomaly. We’ll continue to see a lot of the same.”

City residents are not expecting an end to the unrest any time soon. The six officers on trial for Freddie Gray’s death will take the stand over the next several months; the first officer’s first trial, which ended in a hung jury, has already been rescheduled for June. The pretrial hearing for the second officer, Caesar R. Goodson Jr., began Wednesday. Goodson faces a number of charges, including second-degree depraved heart murder, a crime carrying a maximum 30-year sentence.

On top of the trials, 2016 is set to be an intense year for state and local politics. The state legislative session kicks off in Annapolis next week, and activist leaders will be pressuring legislators to pass police reform measures, like body cameras and changes to the Law Enforcement Bill of Rights—or a list of ways cops can evade scrutiny. On top of that, a new Baltimore mayor and City Council will be elected in November; Huffman thinks the current City Council could turn over more than 50 percent in the next cycle.

Love says he and other activists will continue to pressure leaders to invest directly in the people living in the beleaguered communities—a more effective and sustainable way, he argues, to create safe and thriving neighborhoods.

Elkins agrees. “Anything we try will be expensive—rather, anything that is worth trying ought to be expensive,” he says. “The spike after Gray’s death and the riots does seem anomalous at the same time that it is cause for concern. Yet we shouldn’t be distracted by the dispute over the Ferguson Effect—which essentially asks, who’s to blame? That’s a sideshow to the real issue of economic justice. Because of the way our criminal justice system favors the rich over the poor, we should be trying to empower the poor.”

OSI’s Huffman adds that it remains to be seen whether the powers that be are ready to do what the city needs.

“There’s definitely political will to stop the bleeding, but whether or not there’s a real recognition of what the underlying problems are, I’m not sure,” she says. “The city is still in transition, but we have a lot of opportunities right now to get this right.”