At the Police Department's budget hearing, commanders said there were about 200 sworn vacancies and another 260 sworn staff positions empty due to suspensions, military or medical leave. Batts blamed the high vacancy rate on the department's inability to offer salaries competitive with those of surrounding jurisdictions.

The department's starting salary is on par with other jurisdictions, according to a survey by the Maryland Association of Counties — about $43,000 per year, compared with $60,000 in Baltimore County, $55,000 in Anne Arundel County, and $65,000 in Howard County.

But once promoted to sergeant, a Baltimore County officer makes $101,000. A city sergeant makes $76,000, the survey shows.

That issue is not new, though top officials say other agencies have stepped up their efforts to recruit the city's officers, particularly younger ones whom Baltimore police paid to train.

"You're leading a group of people looking for somewhere else to go, and there's plenty of places," Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke told Batts.

Baltimore's police department is one of the largest per capita in the country, with about 3,100 sworn officer positions, though Batts, who took over the agency last year after a career spent on the West Coast, said it has an unusually high number of officers on the sideline due to injuries, suspensions or military leave.

The city hired a team of outside consultants, which is in Baltimore this week to evaluate the department and determine whether it is understaffed or whether it could actually reduce the force through efficiencies.

Batts and his new deputy commissioner, Jerry Rodriguez, also a California transplant, are also trying to find ways to streamline the disciplinary process so officers are not suspended for years at a time.

Meanwhile, police have been looking for ways to handle the heavy load of 911 calls without using officers. Earlier this year, Baltimore introduced an online reporting system for minor crimes — a service they say has gotten modest use — and the department plans to create a unit to take reports over the phone for issues that don't require an officer to respond.

At the Police Department's budget hearing at City Hall, council members spent considerable time discussing the department's lack of competitive pay. But the cash-strapped city has yet to put aside resources to significantly raise officer salaries.

The Fraternal Order of Police contends that the city could operate with fewer officers and better pay, in part because fewer officers would leave and a higher-quality force would face fewer disciplinary issues.

Batts, for his part, signaled that compensation is something he is studying.

"We have been and are a training ground for other departments," Batts said. "It's critically important for us to keep and retain, to get the best and the brightest. We have to look at pay. … In order for us to become one of the best, we have to invest in that."

jfenton@baltsun.com

An earlier version of this article gave the incorrect starting salary for a Balitmore City police officer. The yearly salary is about $43,000. 

Baltimore police staffing

Sworn officers: 3,100

Vacancies on the force: 200

Positions empty because of suspensions or leave: 260

Overtime budget for fiscal 2013: $20 million

Estimated total overtime spending for the year: $23.5 million

Source: Baltimore Police

Numbers are approximate.