Baltimore brings in new lawyers to restart police contract talks

Baltimore has hired new lawyers from Philadelphia in a bid to restart contract talks with the city’s police union after its members overwhelmingly rejected a previous proposal in the fall.

The new round of negotiations is scheduled to begin Friday, city solicitor Andre Davis said.

More than 95 percent of the police union’s members voted in October to reject a proposed deal. The vote followed protracted discussions with the city after the previous contract expired in June 2016.

While many of the existing provisions in the old contract remain in effect, officers have not received cost-of-living raises since it expired.

Union president Lt. Gene Ryan said that without a new contract in place, officers’ morale is down.

“It gives them a feeling of security once we agree upon a contract and also agree on some sort of compensation,” he said.

In the meantime, crime in the city has continued at unprecedented levels. Baltimore saw its deadliest-ever year per capita in 2017, with 343 homicides and high rates of other kinds of violence.

Davis said he hopes the new lawyers, a pair of attorneys from the firm of Ballard Spahr, will breathe life into the negotiations with the Fraternal Order of Police.

“There wasn’t very much progress being made,” he said. “Sometimes fresh eyes, fresh ideas, a fresh approach can move things.”

Ryan said he was optimistic that a deal can be reached.

“I’m always optimistic that we can figure something out when you sit at a table and both sides negotiate reasonably,” he said.

For those not at the negotiating table, another shot at securing a police contract means a better chance at tackling the city’s historically high crime.

The Rev. Andrew Foster Connors, a leader with the community group Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, or BUILD, said the city and the union urgently need to reach a deal.

“With everything that the city is facing in terms of violent crime, it’s essential that the mayor and police union leadership get on the same page with each other,” said Connors, whose group has pushed city leaders to fight violence.

A major sticking point in the contract negotiations has been the schedule that officers are required to work. City officials say the current four-day, 10-hour shift system has left the department with too few officers available and has led to ballooning overtime costs, but union leaders say it’s popular because it gives officers more free days. That schedule was implemented in 2015

Councilman Brandon Scott, the chairman of the public safety committee, said reaching an agreement on a schedule would be a big step toward improving the police’s patrol operations.

“We need to use our resources efficiently,” he said.

Connors said that while reshaping the schedule won’t solve all of the department’s manpower problems, he did think it could help get more officers out on the streets — the No. 1 thing his group hears that residents want.

“Deployment numbers are a central issue,” he said.

Both sides said they expect the schedule will continue to be a significant subject of debate as the talks start back up.

The proposal rejected by the union in October would have created a system involving schedules of five days at work and two days off, followed by four days on and two days off.

The city was so intent on resolving the scheduling issue that it backed off seeking to have civilians serve on internal police disciplinary boards, which are now composed exclusively of other officers. Inserting civilians into the process has been a high priority for civil rights activists and the police commissioner alike.

The proposal also would have provided retroactive raises and another pay increase kicking in this year. The union wanted more money than the city was offering.

The city regularly uses outside lawyers in the contract negotiations, previously relying on a local firm. The city declined to provide details of how much the attorneys from Ballard Spahr are being paid. The firm has offices across the country and works extensively with Philadelphia’s government on labor issues.

Scott said the city’s move to bring in new lawyers was a promising sign.

“I just hope it means we’re going to make a big push to get it done,” he said

Ryan said that while the city’s new lawyers might help bring a fresh perspective, they also could slow things down as the two sides get to know each other.

“It could go either way,” he said. “I’m keeping a positive attitude for now, and we’ll see what happens.”

iduncan@baltsun.com

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