Public school governance IS the problem.

Anyone making a study of the deficiencies in the manner in which public school systems are governed in Maryland and in much of the United States might do well to schedule a visit to the Baltimore metropolitan area.  Right now we have in this area a smorgasbord of the problems that come with a style of governance that tends to produce local boards of education that either try to micromanage school superintendents or hire peripatetic superintendents with a top-down management styles who parachute into school systems and introduce “innovative” programs advertised as quick fixes to long-standing problems, or both.

The unique way in which American public elementary and secondary schools are run served us fairly well for about the first 100 years after Massachusetts established the first compulsory school laws in 1852.  In the past 50 years or so, however, there has been a rather steady decline in the performance of our schools, particularly in comparison to schools in developed countries in Europe and Asia.  According to one well known study of developed and developing countries in 2015, 15-year-olds in the United States ranked 38th out of 71 countries studied in math proficiency and 24th in science.

Whatever we are doing now isn’t working all that well.  Even our “best” schools are fairly mediocre by international standards.  It seems to me that it is tough to argue that it isn’t time to try a different approach.

The United States used to be known for its adaptability and willingness to move past ways of doing things that no longer were working as well as they had in the past.  Now, however, we seem hide-bound by the influence of special interests and politics.  What is it about the governance of public schools that needs to be changed, and why?

A local board of education stands in a relationship with the local superintendent of schools that is different in kind from the relationship that exists, for example, between the typical board of trustees of a public university and the president of that university.  The role of the board of trustees of a university generally is limited to approving the mission and broader goals and objectives of the university and to evaluating the performance of the president.  The president usually is delegated complete authority for the day-to-day management of the university and for the establishment of policies and procedures that govern the educational programs and other operations.

In contrast, local boards of education are charged by law with taking a much more direct role in the governance of a school system, obligated to review various decisions made by the superintendent in administering the schools.  Maryland law specifies that a local board shall “determine, with the advice of the county superintendent, the educational policies of the county school system.”  With boards so deeply involved in issues affecting day-to-day governance there can be a fine line between board members carrying out their legal duties and micromanaging local superintendents.

In my opinion, elected boards are less likely to manage that balance judiciously; politics being what it is there is more pressure on elected board members to second-guess a superintendent.  The patience necessary to sit back and allow a superintendent to do his or her job is not a common attribute of contemporary politicians.  Let’s not pretend that elected school board members are not politicians of one sort or the other.

Micromanagement of a superintendent seldom ends well.  If you are looking for an example of what happens when a local board of education loses sight of the difference between its role and the role of the superintendent in a heated rush to try to changes to a school system you need to look no farther than Howard County.

In Howard County three newcomers defeated the incumbents in the three seats on the seven-member Howard County Board of Education that were up for election in November.  The new board majority immediately went to war with Superintendent Renee Foose over control of the school system with Superintendent Foose filing a suit alleging that board members are overstepping their bounds and interfering with her ability to run the school system.

The latest casualty in the war is a scholarship program initiated by Superintendent Foose in cooperation with McDaniel College.  In what only can be described as a fit of pettiness and pique the new board ended the program so precipitously that McDaniel is considering its own legal action.  At present the governance of Howard County schools is hopelessly polarized – like a lot of other institutions run by elected officials.

Local boards of education, even appointed ones, tend to feel the pressure to try to solve problems  in the short term even when longer term fixes are required.  Quick fixes are sought in the form of charismatic superintendent candidates who come with credentials as “change agents.”  If you are looking for an example of that phenomenon you need look no farther than Baltimore County.

An article in The Baltimore Sun titled “Dance resignation leaves his school initiatives in question” suggested that the resignation of Dallas Dance as Baltimore County school superintendent imperiled programs that he had introduced since he was hired in 2012.  The article noted that “Dance’s tenure has been marked by ambitious changes that were enacted quickly — in some cases with uneven results.”  That observation could be applied to the tenure of school superintendents in hundreds of public school systems around the country and in Maryland.

Not all Baltimore County teachers were displeased to learn of Dr. Dance’s departure.  I can’t help but wondering if some of the lack of confidence in him among teachers had to do with his lack of classroom experience.  Dr. Dance was 30 years old when he was hired as superintendent and had spent precious little of his brief educational career actually teaching students.

Can you imagine a 30 year old with very little experience doing surgery being hired as Surgeon-in-Chief at Johns Hopkins Hospital who then proceeds to tell other surgeons how to do their jobs?  I don’t know why it would be any different in a public school system.

The top-down management style – rolling out a series of new ideas and then expecting dubious principals and teachers to implement them – is hardly unique to Dr. Dance in the world of elementary and secondary education.  If you are looking for an example of how badly that style can miss the mark you need look no farther than the City of Baltimore.

The Henderson-Hopkins School, a public “contract” school opened in 2014 and operated for the Board of Baltimore City School Commissioners by John Hopkins University with further expertise provided by Morgan State University, was an attempt to build a showcase K-8 school in East Baltimore.  It was designed, built and run by the best and the brightest that Baltimore has to offer.  That is why I was stunned when I read the excellent series of articles by Liz Bowie of the Baltimore Sun about the school and its struggles and learned that the design included open-space classrooms.

Open space classrooms were a fad of the 1960’s and 1970’s that proved to be a wretched and costly failure in Anne Arundel County where I lived and worked for 43 years.  It has taken many years and millions of dollars to undo the folly there, and Prince George’s, Carroll and Calvert Counties had similar experiences.  In 2013 David Lever, long-time executive director of the Maryland Public School Construction Program noted that there was general agreement across the state that open-space classrooms are not “optimal learning environments.”

The problems with the open space classrooms at Henderson-Hopkins were the impetus for an informative article on the dismal history of open space classrooms published by The Atlantic in its “CityLab” feature captioned “Who Thought ‘Open Classrooms’ Were a Good Idea?”  In that article the head of one of the nation’s leading architectural firms specializing in the design of education facilities and a major proponent of bringing back open space classrooms responded defensively to criticism of the open space concept by effectively blaming the principals and teachers who are the end-users of the design:  “The biggest obstruction to these spaces is that any change is terrifying for people.”  Don’t you just love it when an “expert” blames you for the flaws in a product?

I had to smile a bit when I read another article, this one published in 2015 by bizjournals.com and titled “Architecture review: Henderson-Hopkins School is succeeding, thanks in part to good design.”  The author, a Baltimore architect, obviously was not privy to the information gathered by Liz Bowie of The Sun and concluded his article as follows:  “Children are happy in their bright spaces. The award-winning design works.”  Children may have been happy but they were not learning at the expected pace.

The author quoted former Henderson-Hopkins principal Katrina Foster as praising the “spatial flexibility” of the design as allowing children to be moved “to different spaces based on their own progress and achievement.”  No teacher was quoted in the bizjournal article and no mention was made of the report by Ms. Bowie that teachers at Henderson-Hopkins “have found the school’s open spaces difficult to teach in.”

In the summer of 2016 Johns Hopkins moved to turn around the lackluster academic performance of Henderson-Hopkins by replacing three of the four key administrators, including Ms. Foster.  Johns Hopkins hired Deborah Ptak to replace Ms. Foster as principal.  Ms. Ptak, a veteran administrator with experience both in the city and Madison, Wisconsin, made a number of changes, including purchasing six-foot high partitions to divide classrooms.  This summer those partitions will be replaced by permanent walls.

Here is my hunch:  Had you asked any group of principals and teachers with experience teaching in the city whether it was good idea to build Henderson-Hopkins with open space classrooms the overwhelming majority would have said “Absolutely not.”  In a top-down environment ideas for change tend to originate at the top of the management hierarchy rather than evolve from the knowledge and experience of those working in the trenches.

The reason that style misfires so often in elementary and secondary school administration is because the most valuable source of information on how to teach lies in the system’s core of experienced principals and teachers that have a proven record of success – that is where the most important talent is, not at school headquarters.  Whether it is school design or changes to curriculum or grading policy principals and teachers too often are the last persons consulted.

Compounding the problem of the top-down style in education is the frequent absence of evidence-based decision-making.  Where was the evidence supporting the conclusion that open space classrooms provide a superior or even adequate learning environment?  Where is the research that supports the introduction of the dizzying array of programs under various lofty-sounding names that have come and gone in elementary and secondary schools over the past 30 years?  It is not always there or, if it is there, does not always meet established standards for trustworthiness and validity.

That does not mean that there is not a lot of research out there on teaching methods; there is a ton of it, some good and some not so good.  Organizations like the National Education Association (NEA) try to help educators sort the wheat from the chaff.

Indeed, with so many new ideas and so much research out there it is crucial that the perfect not be made the enemy of the good.  One thing that the evidence does not establish is that there is only one effective way to teach children.  More harm than good can be done by too-frequent changes that leave teachers confused and demoralized.  Even if a new superintendent believes that he or she knows a “better” way of doing things the best course of action may be to avoid forcing change too quickly.

At the end of the day there is one truth in public elementary and secondary education that everyone seems to acknowledge:  The key to success for a school is to have strong and competent teachers under the leadership of a strong and competent principal.  That is not surprising given that the formula for success in almost every organization is to appoint a competent leader, give that leader the tools necessary to do the job, and then hold the leader accountable for the results.

And, as a friend of mine pointed out, put a bunch of successful schools together and sooner or later you have a successful school system.  In other words, schools and school systems are built from the bottom up, brick by brick.  There is no quick fix or magic elixir for mediocre or failing schools, and boards of education have to keep that in mind.  Giving a superintendent or principal the tools to run a school or a school system sometimes means staying out of the way as much as possible – at least don’t make their jobs any harder than they already are.  It is my belief that, in too many cases, the style of governance employed by local boards of education actually detracts from the likelihood that principals and teachers will successfully educate the children under their charge.

In my opinion, there needs to be a paradigm shift in the governance of public schools to a model more similar to the one commonly used in institutions such as hospitals and colleges and universities.  The role of a local board should be to establish broad goals and objectives and then make sure that the system is working toward achieving them, staying away from setting detailed policies and procedures and staying out of the day-to-day control of the system.  The focus of the board must always be on getting the best professionals on the ground where the teaching is done, and then making sure that these professionals have the tools to do their jobs.

Board members should be appointed based on their proven ability to build successful organizations, not on the basis of specific educational philosophies and practices that they would like to see implemented or any other personal agendas.  Above all, board members should not be politicians looking to build their resumes and visibility for their next or, in the case of appointed members, their first runs for office.

I do not hold principals and teachers blameless for the state of American education.  Administrators and teachers unions make identifying and retaining only reasonably competent administrators and teachers much harder than it should be.  Also, there obviously are a multitude of social and economic factors that affect educational outcomes.  At the end of the day, however, I do not believe that public education (or any other governmental endeavor) is going to be any better than the manner in which it is governed.

Am I optimistic that a change to the governance structure will be made?  No.  In searching for ways to improve test scores and overall school performance we are going farther into the wilderness while cutting off the way back out.  The statewide movement to elected school boards means that we have created an entirely new class of politicians who will do whatever it takes to hang onto their turf and power.

April 30, 2017

The Baltimore Police Department is in serious trouble.

The Baltimore Police Department (BPD) is in serious trouble, but you would not know that from the attitude of state and city officials.  The General Assembly seemingly has taken a hands-off approach to the crisis and city officials understate the gravity of the situation.

The calm and methodical approach of Mayor Catherine Pugh and the “I’ve got this” demeanor of Police Commissioner Kevin Davis are understandable – neither gloom and doom nor panic are useful responses – but I fear that they are not conveying to the public the urgent need for more fundamental changes to the governance and operation of the BPD.  That may be about to change, at least on the part of the mayor.

This week Mayor Pugh tacitly acknowledged that the BPD is in over its head, requesting help from the FBI, an agency not routinely involved in street-level crime.  Commissioner Davis on the other hand responded angrily to the statement by FOP President Gene Ryan that BPD’s staffing shortages have reached “crisis” level, replying that both he and his commanders found Lt. Ryan’s statement “offensive.”  Davis’s testy response tells me that he realizes that Ryan is right but that he is loath to admit, as the mayor has, that his department may not be up to the tasks at hand.

If you had to describe the tasks at hand for the BPD in a nutshell, you might say that the BPD needs to prevent and solve crime and control the conduct of its officers and do so while keeping the costs of running the department within reasonable limits.  If you don’t believe that the BPD is struggling with those tasks let’s take a look at the facts, beginning with the evidence of the failure of the department to control the conduct of its officers.

In 2014 The Sun reported that Baltimore paid about $5.7 million since 2011 over lawsuits claiming that BPD officers used excessive force or otherwise abused the rights of citizens.  If the BPD had a problem with the use of excessive force, however, it was not reflected in the outcomes of its disciplinary system.

An analysis of data from January 2013 through March 2016 by The Sun’s Catherine Rentz disclosed that eight out of every ten excessive-force complaints submitted to the internal affairs division of the BPD were found to be “not sustained,” a rate more than twice as high as that found in a national study by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).  According to a separate report by WBAL’s Jayne Miller internal affairs cases languished an average of 183 days before investigations even were completed.

After a year-long investigation the DOJ issued a 163-page report in August 2016 detailing how Baltimore police routinely violated the constitutional rights of residents by conducting unlawful stops and using excessive force.  Among the many damning findings by the DOJ was its conclusion that many front-line supervisors within the BPD – sergeants and lieutenants – didn’t bother supervising.  The DOJ reported that its review did not identify a single stop, search, or arrest that a front line supervisor found to violate constitutional standards “even though numerous incident reports for these activities describe facially unlawful police action.”

In February of this year a federal grand jury indicted seven members of the BPD’s “elite” Gun Trace Task Force on charges that are especially troubling even by BPD standards, with the United States Attorney referring to the officers as nothing more than armed robbers with police badges – one more violent gang in a city saturated with violent gangs.  Much has been written, some by me, on the need to change the culture that exists among rank-and-file officers and their immediate supervisors within the BPD.  If you want an idea of how much work remains to be done to change that culture read the snippets of the conversations among the officers quoted in the indictment.

The indicted officers also were accused of conspiring to commit overtime fraud against the city by falsifying time and attendance reports; the supervisor of the task force, Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, allegedly submitted claims for overtime for five days in July 2016 during which he was on vacation with his family in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.  Jenkins was paid a total of $83,345 in overtime in fiscal year 2016 in addition to his salary of $85,406.  The indictment does not indicate how much of that overtime was based on the alleged fraud, but we do know that the overtime budget is completely out of control, with rampant abuse undoubtedly one of the reasons.

This year the BPD is on pace to double what it spent on overtime in 2013 and to exceed the $17 million budgeted for overtime in fiscal year 2017 by nearly $30 million; in other words, the BPD is now spending approximately $1 million per week on overtime.  It is not as if the BPD was not costly enough already; Baltimore has the 8th largest municipal police department in the country even though it is only the 26th largest city by population.

Funding of the BPD has increased about 37% since 2011 to about $480 million this year and on a per capita basis is now one of the most expensive police departments in the country, if not the most expensive.  Even key city officials are now complaining that the costs of running the department are unreasonable and must be dramatically reduced because other priorities, especially education, are being compromised.

The increase in spending on the BPD has not been accompanied by a decrease in crime – to the contrary.  There were 197 murders in all of 2011 and less than four months into 2017 there already are 101.  Homicides are up more than 34% compared to the same time last year, non-fatal shootings are up 27%, and carjackings have increased by 61%.  Other crimes are on the uptick as well.

The BPD is not to blame for the epidemic of violent crime in the city now into its third year but neither is there any reason to believe that the BPD is up to the task of coping with it.  The BPD improved its dismal case closure rate of 38% in 2016 to a mediocre 49% so far this year but, as explained by Justin George of The Sun, the increase may not be as significant as it first appears.  In any event, there is no metric by which the efforts of the BPD to prevent and solve crime can be deemed to be a “success.”

Crime in general has rendered some of the poorer neighborhoods in the city almost uninhabitable but juvenile crime in particular has ruined the quality of life in more affluent communities such as Federal Hill.  Marauding bands of teenagers have caused trouble downtown and in the Inner Harbor off and on for years, capturing national attention in 2012 when State Senator Patrick McDonough stated that the Inner Harbor should be declared a “no travel zone” like certain areas in the Middle East.

The problem of groups of teenagers assaulting and harassing visitors to the Inner Harbor hit the headlines again in February of this year.  Tourism in the Inner Harbor depends on the perception that, although Baltimore has some very dangerous neighborhoods, the Inner Harbor is specially protected and therefore “safe.”  An incident that reprises the negative attention that the city got in 2012 could shatter that perception and put a dagger into the heart of the tourism industry in the city, something that the city can ill afford; tourism generates about $283 million per year in taxes and fees for the city and $396 for the state with direct spending by visitors in excess of $5 billion.

Can the BPD keep the Inner Harbor and other downtown tourist attractions safe for visitors?  Doing so requires saturating the area with police officers, and patrolling the Inner Harbor is now competing against other pressing needs throughout the city for the shrinking personnel resources of the BPD.  One instance of a teenage thug knocking a tourist to the ground caught on cell phone video and we again are going to hear calls for the National Guard to patrol the Inner Harbor with M-16’s because the BPD can’t protect visitors.

Without more officers the BPD is unable to staff the personnel deployment plan introduced in 2015 without relying heavily on overtime.  The plan, which replaced five eight-hour shifts per week with four ten-hour shifts, requires 1,250 officers to staff; the city currently has about 900.  In 2014 the department cut 200 positions and the following year froze 225 more.  The staffing “crisis” to which FOP head Ryan referred is compounded by the fact that the BPD no longer is able to recruit new officers fast enough to replace departing ones.

Mandatory overtime can be hard on morale and fatigue from extended shifts can reduce effectiveness and endanger both officers and citizens.  The use of ten-hour shifts currently is hardwired into the department because it is written into the police union contract.  There is no quick fix even if the union contract is renegotiated and it appears that the department will be struggling to meet the demands of its workload for years to come.

As if all of the above was not enough, the relationship between the BPD and the equally-troubled State’s Attorney’s Office is increasingly fraught; the SAO is having as much difficulty securing convictions as the BPD is having closing cases.  The stress on the BPD is coming from almost every direction, and it is reeling.

To some extent the investigation by the DOJ and the now-approved consent decree have caused state and city leaders to step back and wait, as if the solutions to the BPD’s problems lie in someone else’s hands.  That is a dangerous misperception; the consent decree between the city and the DOJ is not a panacea and in fact is likely to increase the strain on the BPD in the short term.  The consent decree is an imperfect remedy at best and implementing it will be extremely expensive and draw resources away from the fight against crime.  It also demands a less-aggressive style of policing at a time when some experts are saying that the BPD needs to embrace a more aggressive approach.

One thing that you never hear mentioned by those who praise the consent decree is that the city is in uncharted territory – no police department has had to spend time and money on compliance with a consent decree while also trying to combat an historic increase in crime comparable to Baltimore’s.  In an interview with WBAL-TV’s Adam May outgoing United States Attorney for the District of Maryland Rod Rosenstein cautioned that the focus of the consent decree is on policing the police, not on fighting crime.  He stated that the city needs to return to the aggressive, proactive policing that drove down violent crime from 2007 to 2014 because the mission of keeping the streets safe is not being accomplished.  “We need to be more aggressive, more pro-active with law enforcement, because our responsibility is to protect the law abiding citizens.”

The problem is that under the consent decree policing is likely to be less aggressive and pro-active, partly by design.  For example, the consent decree prohibits BPD officers from stopping and frisking a person in a high crime neighborhood based only on the person’s sudden and unprovoked flight from the officers, even though the practice is constitutionally sound and results in taking handguns and other contraband off of the streets.  In asking the FBI for help Mayor Pugh complained that “There are too many guns on the streets.”  Assuming she is correct it was not the ideal time to agree to end a practice that actually took some of those guns off of the streets.

Under pressure from members of the city council to downsize and under compulsion by the consent decree to adopt a less-aggressive style of policing the BPD is being asked to make two major transitions – downsize and change its style of policing – at a time when it can barely do its job.  I do not doubt that over time the city will be better served by a smaller and higher-quality department or that the consent decree ultimately will result in the improvement of the quality of the department; I just wonder how well these transitions can be managed while the department is struggling to accomplish its basic mission of keeping the streets safe.

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How did things get this bad for the BPD?  In my opinion, the BPD has become ungovernable.  By “ungovernable” I mean that the department’s leadership is precluded by the structural limitations on its authority from making the changes and asserting the influence necessary to control the conduct of police officers, rein in costs, and shape the department into a police force capable of coping with a crime rate of historic proportions.

Don’t expect sustained improvement in the performance of the BPD until there is a change in its governance.  Specifically, the state and the city must restore to the Police Commissioner the authority to run the department that was gradually ceded to the police union and collective bargaining.  The recipe for the success of any governmental agency is to appoint a competent leader, give that leader the tools necessary to do the job, and then hold the leader accountable for the agency’s performance.  Conversely, take the tools necessary to do the job away from the leader and watch the performance of the agency gradually deteriorate – which is exactly what has happened to the BPD.

I described in a post last week how the authority of the Police Commissioner to control the conduct of officers has been eroded over time by the state and city.  The problem also extends to control over the allocation of personnel and other resources; the commissioner should not have to go hat in hand to the union to be able to change shift and staffing patterns to respond to changing circumstances.

In January of last year the Daily Record published an editorial in which it observed that the BPD would never be reformed unless someone managed to “dismantle the police union’s grip on city government.”  That observation can be extended to the FOP’s grip on state government and it is as true now as it was true then.  It will continue to be true until state and city officials muster the political will to do something about it.

I have made other suggestions in the past about things that needed to be done to restore a sensible “balance of power” between labor and management in the BPD.  None of my proposals were particularly earth-shattering, but at least they reflected the reality that nibbling around the edges of the problems with the BPD is not going to be sufficient.  State and city officials have yet to grasp that reality.  The commissioner has initiated some reforms but they don’t come close to solving the problems.  More than rearranging the deck chairs will be required.

And yes, I do see the BPD as a giant ocean liner headed toward an iceberg.  At some point it becomes too late to change course to avoid a collision.  I hope I am wrong, but I believe that the BPD may be past the point where anything can be done to avoid some very rough times in the next few years.  If violent crime continues unabated as the costs of complying with the consent decree climb we are going to see extraordinary levels of political turmoil in Baltimore and Annapolis.

Crime rates generally are cyclical and maybe the best that can be done now is pray for a fortuitous downturn in the violence gripping Baltimore.  At the same time we might also pray for forgiveness for the state and city officials who have done almost nothing to fix the BPD and protect the city.

April 27, 2017

It’s too soon to declare victory for the Baltimore Police Department.

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh described the day that United States District Court Judge James Bredar signed the order approving the consent decree between the city and the Department of Justice (DOJ) that requires changes to the policies and practices of the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) as “a great day for Baltimore.”  She said that the approval was as “a great victory for the citizens of Baltimore as well as for our Police Department.”

It is too soon to declare victory.  The easy part is now behind the city; the hard work lies ahead.  The consent decree is no panacea.  Political courage will be required to assure its success and that tends to be in short supply.

Many factors contributed to the troubled record of the BPD but at heart of the problem was the failure of state and city officials to adhere to one simple rule:  The path to success for almost any governmental organization is placing a competent person in charge, giving that person the tools necessary to run the organization, and holding him or her accountable for the results.  The rule applies to schools and principals and it applies to police departments and police chiefs.

State and city officials defied this principle by a series of decisions that eroded the power of the police commissioner to control the conduct of officers and to ensure that only good officers were retained and promoted, taking away important tools from the commissioner.  If those decisions are not reversed there will be no sustainable reform of the BPD.

The failure was a collective effort.  The General Assembly did its part by enacting a Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (LEOBR) that takes disciplinary decisions out of the hands of police chiefs, renders it extraordinarily difficult to discipline officers for misconduct, and is entirely unsuited to the demands of a large, urban police department.

The city allowed sergeants and lieutenants and the officers they supervise, all of whom are protected by the LEOBR, to be represented by the same union.  As if to emphasize the stranglehold that the union has over them city officials negotiated union contracts further diluting the commissioner’s authority over discipline by stripping the commissioner of the right to appoint the members of the hearing boards convened to determine if police officers should be disciplined.

In other words, the sole authority to administer discipline once exercised by the commissioner was transferred by the state to panels of the commissioner’s subordinates selected by the commissioner.  Next, the sole authority of the commissioner to select the members of the panels was taken away by the city.  The consequences were predictable.

The attenuation of management’s ability to shape the attitudes and behavior of officers created the opportunity for an insular, anti-management culture to flourish among the rank-and-file and their immediate supervisors.  Far too often this resulted in out-of-control officers supervised by sergeants and lieutenants who were indifferent, or worse. The culture will not change unless the authority of the commissioner is restored and the power of the police union diminished.  And, if the culture is not changed all of the additional training and other changes required by the consent decree will amount to castles built on sand.

Am I confident that state and city officials have the political courage to take on the police union and give back to the commissioner the tools necessary to run the BPD?  An old saw explains why I am not.

A stranger came across a man digging for buried treasure.  The man enlisted the stranger’s help and after an hour of fruitless digging the stranger asked the man if he was sure they were digging in the right spot.  The man admitted that they weren’t digging in the right spot, explaining “The treasure is buried over there, but the ground is softer over here.”  If history is any judge state and city elected officials will do enough to make it appear that they are trying to solve the problem without doing the tough work required to actually solve it.  Neither the General Assembly nor the City Council has shown much of an appetite for engaging in a battle with the police union.

Far be it from me to throw cold water on the mayor’s celebratory mood. Personally, however, I will wait to celebrate until I see evidence that state and city officials intend to dig in the right spot and make the changes to state and city law necessary to achieve sustainable reform of the BPD.

April 21, 2017

Alternative facts and Maryland liquor laws.

Credit where credit’s due is my motto, so I have to commend the editorial in yesterday’s Baltimore Sun on reform of Maryland’s liquor laws.  The silver lining in the brouhaha in the General Assembly over legislation that will allow industry giant Diageo to open a Guinness-themed taproom at an old spirits plant in Relay is that it, once again, called attention to Maryland’s archaic liquor laws.

I tweeted a number of weeks ago that the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin is a first-class tourist attraction, richly deserving of its status as the most popular in Ireland.  Even my wife, not a beer drinker, enjoyed it.  If the facility planned for Baltimore for Baltimore is anything like the Dublin operation officials in Maryland and Baltimore County would have to be brain-dead not to do what is necessary to allow it to open. Fortunately, the General Assembly enacted the requisite law expanding the amount of beer Guinness and craft brewers alike can sell in their taprooms, although not without considerable wrangling.

No matter what you may believe, Kellyanne Conway did not invent the concept of “alternative facts.”  Legislators in Maryland long have embraced the concept as applied to the Alcoholic Beverages Article of the State Code, claiming that the primary goal of the byzantine set of laws is to protect the public.

The primary goal of the law is of course to protect the interests of existing business owners, particularly wholesalers and distributors, and it does so in remarkably ham-handed and anti-competitive ways.  The public is left on the outside looking in.

The alcoholic beverage industry and their lobbyists pay handsomely for this special treatment through campaign donations, and in effect have a fair number of legislators in their pocket.  The control exercised by the alcoholic beverage industry over the General Assembly is the worst-kept secret in Annapolis and the source of considerable disgust among those of us who have seen it in action.  The outright corruption of state and local of state and local officials that is detected and prosecuted is the tip of the iceberg.

I agree with the Sun editorial board that existing laws need to be scrapped, and that Maryland needs to start from scratch to craft a sensible regulatory scheme.  I also am leery of Comptroller Peter Franchot, or any other politician, leading the effort.

Maryland politicians simply are too addicted to the flow of campaign contributions from the alcoholic beverage industry to act objectively.  For example, Franchot’s campaign for re-election in 2014 received $62,000 in contributions later determined to be illegal from a company run by David Trone, the Potomac wine magnate who along with his brother owns Total Wine & More.  Some sort of independent commission, with members drawn from outside of politics and the alcoholic beverage industry, is the best hope.

April 15, 2017