A parade of Baltimore police officers, from rookies to a 30-year veteran, told City Council members Wednesday night that training programs developed by the department have sharpened their skills and helped build camaraderie among the ranks.
But questioning about spending related to those programs was postponed as council members sought additional information from the agency.
Pointing to recent police problems, such as a towing kickback scandal that is in court this week, City Councilman Brandon M. Scott called the hearing last month to question the effectiveness and costs of the training programs. The Baltimore Sun also reported this week that a nonprofit that has a contract with the city to provide a program called Diamond Standard Training had spent 40 percent of its funds on entertainment, travel and meals over 20 months.
The Police Department mounted a full-court press to defend the programs — more than 25 officers attended Wednesday's council hearing to testify to the programs' benefits, and officials brought a stack of glowing reviews from officers who had gone through the training. Council members were also invited to take part in a training demonstration Tuesday.
"None of us have an issue with the training, per se," said Scott, a former neighborhood liaison with the mayor's office. He said key documents he requested from the department weren't delivered in time for the hearing. "After we review all the documents, we're going to ask more questions," he said.
Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III has made training a priority, and the department has credited the programs with driving down police-involved shootings and citizen complaints since 2007. Officials fear that questions about the spending will undermine the benefits of the programs, which they say are cost-effective and important to the department's progress.
The department's contract with the Center for Research on Institutions and Social Policy authorized paying $600,000 to develop the Diamond Standard program, and officials said Wednesday that about $500,000 has been spent.
According to tax documents, for a period covering the first 20 months of the contract, the center reported spending more than $60,000 of its $150,000 total expenses on "entertainment," travel and meals. The foundation's president, Adam Walinsky, told The Sun that the entertainment expenses were typically for meals where training was discussed among police officials.
Walinsky serves as a strategic consultant, while the department's personnel administer the training. It is based on military concepts and includes shooting simulations, interactions with city youth at an outdoor recreation center and problem-solving strategies.
"We really went outside of the box to do training we've never done before," said Sgt. Dennis Raftery, who helped develop the curriculum. "These concepts make each officer a complete officer."
Officer Charles Smith said that last fall, when he found himself confronted by a man who had shot his wife and was shooting at officers, his training kicked in. He took cover and radioed to his fellow officers not to come up a street that would expose them to gunfire. The suspect was eventually killed.
"A light went on, and I went into everything I was trained to do," Smith said. "Without this training, I don't know what would've happened."
Entire shifts of officers are pulled out of their districts to attend the 28-day training together, which Deputy Major Melissa Hyatt said builds bonds. "The month they spent together gave them the opportunity to learn to trust each other," she said. "I can't say enough about it."
Before the Diamond program, officers said, in-service training was brief and impractical. Major William Davis put it more bluntly: "It was a joke."
A separate but related contract, at a cost of about $1.5 million since 2007, has paid a former Navy SEAL named Lew Hicks to teach officers arrest techniques. Deputy Commissioner John Skinner said police have been drawing down the cost of that contract as the department's training personnel become better acquainted with the skills.
Police also developed a sergeants school and have been sending rising stars to a leadership program at University of Maryland, University College.
Officials say the department's new training director, John King, is evaluating whether the city needs to continue to pay outside contractors for the Diamond and Hicks training. King said after the hearing that he believes outside consultants are necessary, though to what extent remains under review.
At least one elected official said his questions about the expenditures had been answered. City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said he has been a "major critic" of the Diamond and Hicks training, but came away a supporter after taking part in the demonstrations Tuesday.
"It was an eye-opener," he said of the shooting simulations. "I'm happy with what I've seen."