The Baltimore Police Department is short almost one-sixth of the officers it should have as it girds for warmer weather and increased violence — prompting top brass to once again exceed their overtime budget to fill patrol cars.
"At the most problematic time for crime, we have a high vacancy rate," Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts told the City Council at a budget hearing earlier this month about the city's fiscal plan for the year that begins in July.
Batts blamed the staffing shortage on challenges retaining officers as he asked the City Council to approve his budget proposal, which includes $20 million for overtime — an amount the department has exceeded in the past two fiscal years. Without better pay to retain and lure officer candidates, the department spends millions to keep officers on the beat for extra hours.
More than one officer left the agency every day last month, and while police say they're able to maintain patrol coverage through overtime spending, some worry about officers being stretched to a breaking point.
"It's not only the overtime spending you have to worry about, but the officers are going to get tired," said City Councilman Brandon Scott. "They're tired now. We're running them into the ground."
Batts has increased foot patrols in high-crime areas, often pulling officers from other assignments and requiring leave time be canceled.
Each day last week, messages went out across the department saying that the Western District was short as many as eight officers a night, according to Robert F. Cherry, the police union president. That often requires supervisors to "draft" officers from the previous shift to work the next, meaning 16-hour shifts.
"It's happening every day, across the city," Cherry said. "Crime may be down, but it's not down so significantly, like Chicago, that you can say the plan is working," he said, referring to a surge in overtime there that has been credited with a decline in homicides of more than 30 percent this year.
Baltimore's vacancies and overtime spending go hand in hand, officials say. Lt. Col. Paul Abell, the head of the management services division, said that 65 percent of overtime spending is connected to staff shortages.
The Eastern District is short about one-tenth of its allotted officers. On Monday night, two people were shot in the 2600 block of Grogan Ave. about 6 p.m. After police had processed the scene for evidence, another shooting rang out in the same block, killing 36-year-old Kwane Davis.
Police maintain that despite the district's vacancies on paper, all patrol slots were properly staffed and an officer was around the corner at the time of the shooting.
"The reality is, these officers are out there busting their tails for the community in that district, and other districts as well," said Col. Dean Palmere, the head of the investigations and intelligence division. "Whether we have to detail officers or pay them overtime, we're going to fill those shifts one way or the other, and these officers are willing to step up."
Police officials said they are able to make up for overtime payments by using money seized in criminal investigations, a rare use of those funds that are typically spent on training or equipment.
Overtime spending has been increasing in recent years. Under Mayor Martin O'Malley, the department regularly exceeded budgeted projections as commanders worked to control crime and make up for attrition.
Mayor Sheila Dixon pressured the department to rein in spending, resulting in sharp declines — from about $31 million in fiscal year 2007 to $16.7 million in 2010 — that still exceeded budgeted amounts.
Under Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, officials say, the overtime budget has increased to more accurately reflect the department's spending expectations, though it continued to overspend. In fiscal 2012, Police Department overtime was budgeted at $17 million and the department spent $22.8 million.
For the fiscal year ending this month, police project that they will spend $23.5 million after budgeting for $20 million. The agency has the same $20 million overtime budget for the coming fiscal year.
In comparison, Chicago, a city with a police force four times the size of Baltimore's, has a police overtime budget of $38 million and had not exceeded that amount through April despite a major push to flood hot-spot crime areas that helped drive down crime to levels not seen since the 1960s.
Baltimore's homicide count is about the same as it was last year.
"It continues to be a challenge, but it's directly related to the attrition issue," said Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, said of overtime spending. "I don't think the mayor would hesitate in any way to spend overtime in order to make sure the police districts are adequately staffed at the levels the commissioner feels are appropriate."
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."
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.
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