Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott Breaks Down How Police Reform Can Affect Systemic Oppression

MICHEL MARTIN: Thanks, Christiane. Mr. Mayor, Brandon Scott, thank you so much for joining us.

MAYOR BRANDON SCOTT (D-BALTIMORE, MD): Thank you. Thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Would you just start by telling us where you were and what you were doing when the jury came back in the Derek Chauvin case and do you remember how you felt or what went through your mind when the jury back?

SCOTT: I felt a big sigh of relief for the Floyd family, for the state of Minnesota, for this country, in particular black people in this country. It almost brought me to tears. I thought about — I lost my grandmother late last year and the conversation that her and I had about what happened in Mr. Floyd via a Duo phone conversation and her just saying, you know, over and over, they didn’t have to kill that man. I think about my dad who was — thought about my dad who was in what we call a middle school or junior high and was integrating schools in North Carolina where one of his classmates was sent to a school with a gun by their dad who says, it’s OK for you to kill one of those N-words. But about all of the stuff that has happened in this country of black people and really thought that this was a big bang, but it wasn’t really a cause for celebration but it’s a cause for more to be done for black people’s lives to truly matter in a country and wish they had this in this bill (ph).

MARTIN: Of course, in Baltimore, you know, this — I guess now sort of notorious case of Freddie Gray who died because of actions while in police custody, it was alleged. And, you know, five police officers were prosecuted. None was convicted. And this was a hugely traumatic event in the life of the city. And I just wanted to ask, did that bring up anything about Freddie Gray rate case for you?

SCOTT: For us here in Baltimore, we know that Freddie Gray’s legacy lives on. His life was lost and cut way too sure for foolishness. But now what he has done is sparked years of reforms and efforts that would have never happened, we would probably have never — Maryland before this verdict came back became the first state repeal the law enforcement officers’ bill of rights under the leadership around House Speaker Adrienne Johnson and our state senator a Bill — Senate President, Bill Ferguson. That would have never happened. Baltimore would never have had a police department can consent decree; we would never have gotten local of our police department if our Freddie didn’t die. So we know that his name lives on. But also, the legacy that — of his life and what impact that’s going have, not just here in Baltimore but in this country.

MARTIN: So let’s just talk about what’s going on in Baltimore more broadly. You know, Baltimore, like many cities — many cities, is experienced a wave of violence. Now, particularly gun violence. As I understand it, like some 92 homicides have taken place already in the city this year. That follows some more than 300 in Baltimore last year. What’s your take on what’s happening here? Why is this happening?

SCOTT: Well, the truth is, is that, for us here in Baltimore, there’s a disease known as gun violence has been a plague in the city longer than I’ve been alive. You can’t just think that you’re going to police your way out of these problems. And I think that’s the kind of leadership that I’m bringing to the mayor’s office here. That’s why I created the Mayor’s Office and Neighborhood Safety and Engagement and then embarking upon Baltimore’s first of its kind Comprehensive Violence Reduction Framework Plan. We’re going into the community, asking the community how we should work together to reduce violence. Sixty-three percent, Michel, of the guns that we recovered last year in Baltimore came from another state. But not until we are now forming and we have a first of its kind gun trafficking data pool that we’re now going to have a unit of folks who are targeting these individuals who are straw purchasing and bringing guns into our city. But we’re also going to expand the great work that we have here in Baltimore about safe street violence interrupters where we take people who are used to be involved in shooting people. And now, they’re interceding in that violence. We’re going make sure that we are pushing towards a world class 911 diversion program where we’re going to be sending healthcare professionals and mental health professionals out to help not (ph) police officers or fire firefighters out when folks call 911. And if any city in the country can get that right are the city that has Johns Hopkins Hospital can get it right, because every single city agency plays a part in reducing violence, not just the police. We have to invest in communities, invest in the promise of our young people, not just their police (ph).

MARTIN: Which is one reason why I think some of your constituents were — were shocked, frankly, when the budget came out and it emerged that the police actually have a slightly larger budget than they did last year. And I think it was particularly surprising for some of your supporters because of your former role as a city council president, you actually led a cut in the police department’s budget. I mean, I understand that some of the increase is accounted for simply by what I would call sort of fixed costs, like increases in budget payments and, you know, health insurance payments. But I still think some of your constituents were expecting a bolder move in the police budget. You want to talk about that?

SCOTT: Yes. I think that we understand what some folks are saying. But the reality is that, what you just said is absolutely the case, right? We have contractual obligations, healthcare benefits that we have to give to all of our employees. I don’t want folks to go after just healthcare for police officers and then think that that’s not going to impact our work — our sanitation workers. And, Michel, the most important thing is, prior to the budget coming out, as a part of regaining local control, a part of this legislation says that I have to appoint an advisory group to talk about what that’s going to look like, how it’s going to happen. I announced two weeks ago, that that group, that very same advisory group has — is passed by me to looking at how we can responsively reduce budget BPD’s budget over a five year period, because we have to do that any responsible way because we are under federal consent decree. We cannot violate that which can lead federal interventions and nobody in the city of Baltimore wants. It’s critical that we get this reimagine of public safety right at every step and not just a move to rush to do one thing so quickly without being able to immediately replace it, but also with having a hurtful impact on the city and its — in totally because of things that are in place. We have to honor our consent decree. We fought for that. As a city council, I stood side by side with community organizer. We asked for that.

MARTIN: On the other hand, do you feel like they’re sort of between a rock and a hard place? I mean, on the other — one hand, the governor, Larry Hogan, a Republican, albeit one who’s been twice elected in a predominantly Democratic state calls your plans to reduce police funding reckless. On the other hand, you had constituents at your town hall meeting last week saying that they regretted voting for you. And as I understand reporting, like every single person who testifies said that they were against the budget. How do you respond to that?

SCOTT: It is — I don’t — I respond to it like this. I said on my first day in office that I’m going to do the right thing, not the popular one, Michel. I didn’t get into this job to make everybody happy. I’ve gotten to this job to do things the right way and in the best interests of all folks Baltimoreans. And that’s what I’m going to do. People are going to be upset; they’re going to be mad because I’m not doing it exactly the way that they happen. I think what I would say for — to the governor and to other folks, they have to understand that I have a very unique perspective. I lived in Baltimore my whole life. I live in a neighborhood of Park Heights that the world listens on for horseracing every other day of the year. I wasn’t seen as human. I had to duck bullets. I had the gun in my face. It’s different for me. And what I am going to do is make sure that I am setting a path for our city to be where we all want them — the city to be, a city that’s investing in different ways and not just policing. But we’re going to do that in the safe way and I’m going to work with all the citizens in Baltimore who believe that we are having the right approach and work and respect everyone’s opinions.

MARTIN: And on the other hand, the state’s attorney, Marilyn Mosby, has said she’s already stopped prosecuting certain “low-level offenses” like drug possession and prostitution, for example. Do you agree with that decision?

SCOTT: Well, what I’ll say is this, the state’s attorney and I share the opinion that people who have substance abuse, people that are in sex work aren’t inherently criminal. And what I will also say, Michel, is that we have years and years and years of data here in Baltimore that arresting them did not make our city a less violent place. But what we have to do, the important work now is for us to — how do we get those individuals the help that we need, but also, we can still enforce our laws, our police department can still enforce those laws and figure out creative ways to not have people ending up in jail. But we have to build the systems on how to allow those individuals to get the help that they need, because I’ll just —

MARTIN: But it sounds like those systems aren’t built yet. So somebody is committing sex just outside of my car, what do I — outside of my house, in front of my house at 3:00 in the afternoon in their car, what happens? What do I do?

SCOTT: Yes. The police can still come and disperse that incident. And in many cases, there are some systems still, especially when you think about sexual abuse and others. But the truth of the reality is this, Michel, think about Baltimore in the 90s and 2000s when I was growing up, right, they were arresting hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people. I myself would be outside and police would just stop me from being basically breathing while black. That didn’t make Baltimore safe, right? And that — when you think about it like this; in 2003, the city had 278 homicides and arrested over 110,000. In 2011, we had 197 and arrested 60,000 people. It’s never been about how many in Baltimore, it’s about who and for what. And that’s where the focus has to be in order to bring peace to our neighborhoods.

MARTIN: Across the county, there has been this cry, this outcry, a demand on the part of some to reimagine the way policing is done, the criminal justice at large is done, and that’s all sort of become sort of discussed under the headline of, you know, defund the police. Is that the right way to think about it? Is that core of it?

SCOTT: Well, it is about reimagining. We have to treat violence and crime like a public health issue. That requires reimagining what public safety means and how we think about and govern public safety. That’s why we have — that’s why I create the Mayor’s Officer of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement. That’s why our health commissioner is who led the development of our violence reduction framework, because we’re treating it like a public health issue. For some people though, Michel, they’re scary because they don’t think that people who look a certain way, black, brown, poor people, should be treated like them. They think that they should be policed and gathered just to protect their way of life. And what reimagining is going to cause, not just my city, it’s going to cause this country to do and the world, even maybe, is to think and be uncomfortable, be uncomfortable about where you stand, how systems work, how we govern. And that’s going to cause people a lot of stress because we know change is hard. But the reality is, Michel, we can’t continue to do it the same way because it hasn’t worked.

MARTIN: Are there specific changes that you want to see within the police force itself?

SCOTT: We are a city under a federal consent decree. Many of the things that we are implementing here, we’ve implemented EPIC, a program where people — our police officers are now charged with interceding when they see other offices acting in an inappropriate way. Really though, for us, it’s about total reforming of our police department, making sure that we’re going from a warrior mindset to a really assistance, they have a peacekeeper kind of mindset. And when you think about some of the significant changes that we made and where we’re going, being one of the first cities to add the use of force policy, we were, to my knowledge, the first city to have citizens sit on what are known as a trial board or a police accountability board where they were inside the room as the discussions were made when misconduct was achieved, people were accused of misconduct. It’s about making sure that those systems never go away, that they become policy and rule and regulation for our police department. But also, the biggest change, I think, that I want to see in our police department is to actually have police responding and working on issues that police should work on, right? Our police officers should not be the first responders out to people who are suffering from overdose or substance abuse or mental health issues. That’s not their job. We have to reduce the burden that we place on the backs of our police departments across the country.

MARTIN: I am wondering though, what is that deep stem here? You know, you talked about the fact that, you know, Baltimore has been one of the country’s most violent cities in some — you know, one of the violent cities for years in a row. What’s the deep stem here?

SCOTT: The deep stem for us here in Baltimore is you can look at a map of the cities, Michel, that has the homicides and shootings, that has obesity, childhood obesity, that has vacant housing, that has all the liquor stores, that has everything that’s wrong for our city and look at the map for when realign was created in Baltimore City. Systemic racism is the stem. And that’s why I passed a few years ago and we’re now going to implement as — with me being mayor, our Equity Assessment Law to make our city the first place to pass that kind of legislation. Operate through a lens of racial equity. Because, of course, East and West Baltimore are having the issues that they have when not only that you determine that they all only live here and basically be poor here in the same neighborhood, but then intentionally are there neighborhoods who are disinvested in. We went — from the time I was born until the time I was 28, I was 28 and on the city council. That was the first new school that we built in the city. And we’ve done a lot of that renovation since then. But that matters. When we look at the history of the city’s capital budget, right, not just the operating budgets, the capital budget. The capital budget historically goes to our rich white neighborhoods not our poor black neighborhoods. We’re going to flip that on a scale because that is the stem.

MARTIN: You’ve talked a lot, really, throughout your public career about the violence that you have personally witnessed. You’ve talked about that as a young child. As I understand it, a friend of yours, someone that you had worked with in the violence prevention space was killed recently. Can you talk about the effect that you think these events have had on you?

SCOTT: I was at home on a Zoom, working on a Sunday and I got a text message about a shooting and then people started to call, they said it was Daunte. And go down to the scene. And in that moment, I think it allowed folks to see how different it is when you’re — sometimes when you’re elected official. Because I immediately had to basically dry my eyes, put away the fact I lost someone that was close to me, that I was friend with. And I had to be there to console his sister, his wife, his mother, his brother, his coworkers, the community that loved him so much and put aside my own grief and talk about Daunte and his work. And there hasn’t been a day that’s gone by since he passed that I haven’t thought about him and what he would say to me. And I know what he would say to me. And I said this, he would say, keep working. It’s not over. Keep working. Like you have to keep going. You have to do it, Brandon. And he would also that forgiveness was the realist thing he ever, ever came to know. And it impacts me in a deep way because someone that lived the life that Daunte lived, right, who was on the quote-unquote wrong sides of the track and then was able to go back and be there. He saved thousands of lives in our city. And this shows how much impact one person can have if people are truly humble themselves and understand the things don’t always have to be the way they are.

MARTIN: Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for talking with us.

SCOTT: Thank you.