Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
In her first two years, the troubled city’s mayor has had no shortage of challenges and controversies.
In November 2016, when Catherine Pugh won the election to become the 50th mayor of the city of Baltimore, the smoke was still settling from the 2015 Baltimore uprising, a response to the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody under questionable circumstances. She inherited a city reeling from rampant corruption within its police department, rising violent crime levels, and a long-festering opioid/heroin crisis. Other, more chronic problems—poverty, unemployment, and vacant, neglected properties—would only make the incoming mayor’s tasks more challenging.
Not long after moving in to City Hall, Pugh made national headlines in the summer of 2017 when she ordered the removal of several Confederate statues, seen by many as symbols of the role of white supremacy in fostering the city’s racial problems. In January of this year, with a police corruption scandal dragging on and the homicide rate spiraling out of control, she fired Baltimore’s police commissioner, Kevin Davis. (His replacement, Darryl De Sousa, resigned in May after being charged with failure to file federal taxes; the position remains open.) And while working with the federal government has been difficult for cities in the Trump era, Pugh was able to win a considerable chunk of Opportunity Zone resources: Her proposal was for 44 communities in the city, and 42 of them were approved.
Pugh was on hand at CityLab Detroit to discuss how the city has been handling its opioid problem. She said she wants Baltimore to be a “national model for treating addiction alongside every other disease,” in part by introducing a hospital program that screens patients for opioid addiction and directs them to treatment. CityLab interviewed her at the conference to discuss the other ways that she’s been addressing crime, who the city’s next police commissioner will be, and how her “tear it down” approach to lingering problems has been received so far.
On the issue of crime, I know that you've been doing these weekly walks through communities. What have you been learning from that?
It will be one year next month that we created the violence reduction task force. That is a collaboration between law enforcement officers who are responsible for public safety and our other agencies that impact public safety, whether it is housing or transportation or the health department. There are maybe 20 different agencies that engage in this daily 8 a.m. meeting at the police department with the command staff. It was under the commissioner that I appointed, [Darryl] De Sousa, that we said, OK, we’re seeing results in violence reduction, but how do we keep it fresh? One of the conversations was, let’s take it outside. Let’s walk the neighborhoods that we’re talking about. We wanted people in these communities to know that the conversations are taking place outside of the walls of City Hall.
I’ve done probably close to 40 walks, which does not include the listening tours that I go on throughout the neighborhoods just to knock on doors and have conversations with people one-on-one about what they need.
Part of taking the conversation outside of the walls of City Hall is sometimes things get picked up that the public wouldn’t normally hear, such as when a local media outlet captured a sound clip of you during walking through an East Baltimore neighborhood saying, “We should just take all this shit down.” Would you like to provide further context for that?
The reality is that the neighborhood where I was walking around is broken. It’s a neighborhood where drug addiction has flourished. Operating in that particular footprint is one of the largest methadone clinics in the city. And while they may bus people in, they don’t bus them out. Then you have just just block after block after block after block of boarded-up houses. Yet there are businesses that choose to operate in that area—liquor stores right next to drug treatment centers. It just doesn’t make sense to me. Then to look at trees growing through boarded-up homes—this is not normal. It’s just not normal.
So no, I don’t think the conversation was taken out of context. I was very serious about tearing it down, and it will be torn down. If you would’ve walked with me in that neighborhood, then you would have witnessed the number of boarded-up houses, the smell that existed over there. It’s unconscionable that we have neighborhoods like that.
In terms of your police department, the city signed a consent decree in 2017 to bring major reforms, but Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been working to undermine such reform agreements. How is that affecting the city’s ability to hold police more accountable?
People said that with the Trump administration coming in we wouldn’t be able to get one signed—ours is signed and operational. One of the things he’s committed to doing is improving police departments, and so around that are technological needs. We’re in a city where technology has not been supported for decades. When you think about being under a consent decree, it’s not just about constitutional policing—it’s also about the resources that need to be made available so that you can police neighborhoods and communities.
If you look at 2002 up until 2017, we were losing more police officers than we were bringing in, because we often look at budgets in terms of how do we cut them to be balanced, but not looking at what is actually occurring in your city. From 2002 up until 2017 we lost close to 900 officers. And in the last four or five years of the previous [mayoral] administration, we lost 545 officers, but on our books it says we have 2,800 officers. The books say you can have 2,800 officers. We were probably around 2,100 to 2,200 when I got there, and now we’re at about 2,300 to 2,400. But if we were to actually plan out our police department, we would need about 2,800 to 3,000, with the crime rate that we are currently sustaining at this point. The things that the [Trump] administration could support is the training of police officers and dollars for additional officers, because we don’t have enough.
Here’s our problem: Now we’ve had to deploy everybody that’s here in the police department, whether you’re in an administrative position or whatever, you’re in the street today because I need you on the street patrolling our city. Those are the kinds of gaps that [the U.S. Justice Department] can help us fill.
You need a police commissioner, too. And I know you came to CityLab Detroit prepared to make an announcement.
Did I really?
Just kidding, but I know you set a goal for the end of the month to select a new commissioner.
I tell people I won’t be forced, even though I set the goal for the end of the month. We will come pretty close to that I think.
So you will make the end of the month?
We may or we may not. We’ll come come close to one side or the other, probably on the other side of it.
Since you brought up technology, Baltimore hasn’t been doing great on that front, with police officers accused of manipulating body cameras and a very controversial spy plane program operating over the city.
Before my time [as mayor] there was a plane in the sky without the full awareness of the community, which is something that doesn’t exist currently. But that’s not the proper technology. What I’m talking about is training on how police use body cameras. But an example of the lack of technology: In 1997 they started putting computers in police cars in Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, and Baltimore County, but not in Baltimore City. So I as mayor was able to secure funding to begin putting computers in police cars in Baltimore City. Those are the kinds of investments we need. I don’t care if [Sessions] agrees with the way we are policing, but those are things you would want to do to enhance the ability of police officers to police communities and neighborhoods.
For us, the consent decree is about constitutional policing. Sessions may or may not agree with how we train officers to be more constitutionally responsible to the people, but you have to equip people with the tools that they need first of all, in order for officers to be able to do the job that they’re supposed to do.