Baltimore police officials say they are changing 'open checkbook' culture on overtime, bolstering patrol

Baltimore Police Deputy Commissioner Andre Bonaparte told City Council members Monday that the agency was working on plans to boost hiring and change its overtime culture but continues to struggle with a shortage of officers.

“There were past practices of just open checkbooks within the agency,” Bonaparte said.

At the council’s monthly police oversight hearing at City Hall, police officials said that the department is chronically understaffed — a situation that leaves officers overworked and drives up costs as commanders rely on overtime pay to bolster staffing each day. In June, Mayor Catherine Pugh’s administration approved the use of $21 million in excess tax revenue to pay for police overtime that surpassed the city’s budget.

Police officials on Monday also told the council that in recent months more employees have left the department than have been hired and that many officers are unable to work at any given time.

For example, two Baltimore police employees were terminated in August and another 72 were on suspension at the end of the month, said Paula Williams, a police department finance official. The number of suspended employees in August was up nearly 29 percent from 56 in July, police officials said.

A slide presentation during the council committee hearing showed that 34 officers assigned to the department’s understaffed patrol division were under suspension at the end of August.

Police officials did not provide information on how many patrol officers had been suspended in July. They also did not present any further context to the statistics presented at the hearing. Police spokesman T.J. Smith said it would not be possible Monday night to immediately provide any more information on why so many officers were terminated or suspended.

The council began holding monthly oversight hearings this year on the police department’s budget.

Bonaparte told the council members that the department was operating with about 500 fewer officers than in 2012. He said refilling the ranks was the department’s “top priority.”

The lack of officers has fallen especially hard on the patrol division, whose officers are the department’s front line and respond to residents’ calls for help.

“They are understaffed, we are aware of it and we are doing everything in our power that we can to increase those numbers,” Bonaparte said.

In July, the police reassigned 115 officers from other roles to patrol.

At the time, officials said the patrol schedule, which involves officers working four 10-hour days a week, needs 1,200 or so officers to work effectively. Before the new assignments, 766 officers were assigned to patrol, though 152 of them could not be deployed because of suspensions, illnesses, vacations and military service.

Almost half of the newly assigned officers were being sent to the Northeastern District and the Central District.

The reassignments brought the total number of officers assigned to patrol to 881, with 729 of them actually available to be deployed.

Bonaparte said that effort was part of a four-point plan to resolve police staffing problems. It also includes hiring more new officers, relying more on civilian employees rather than officers and negotiating a new shift schedule with the officers’ union.

Bonaparte told the council that the department also continues to try to reduce overtime costs and said that internal practices already are changing.

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