Baltimore police patrol schedule puts the public — and officers — at risk

The Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police’s argument in favor of keeping the disastrous four days on, three days off shift schedule, goes something like this: Officers need the four/three schedule so they can recuperate from all the mandatory overtime they’re working because of the four/three schedule.

Absurd? Yes, but that’s the status after the union voted overwhelmingly last week to reject a contract with raises for the officers — and without the top Pugh administration priority of allowing civilians on police trial boards — largely because of a proposed change to that schedule.

Meanwhile, Baltimore finds itself spending a million dollars a week on overtime, stretching police officers to the breaking point, to cover a shift schedule it has never had enough personnel to fill. An idea intended to put more officers on the streets when they’re needed most has clearly not lived up to its promise, with patrol shifts instead going out chronically short-handed, putting both the public and officers at risk.

Things should never have gotten to this point. Baltimore’s police commissioner needs the authority to set shift schedules to protect public safety, and if the Fraternal Order of Police can’t agree to that, lawmakers should eliminate shift schedules as a matter for collective bargaining.

Doing so would put Baltimore City’s police union contract on par with those of other big police departments in the state. While they all address officers’ working hours to one degree or another, none handcuffs police commanders to anything near the degree that Baltimore’s does.

Baltimore County’s police contract stipulates that officers generally work five consecutive eight-hour days within a seven-day period but nothing more specific than that. Montgomery County’s contract similarly specifies a four-day, 40-hour workweek for patrol officers but doesn’t say anything further about shift schedules other than to stipulate that the county can change them if necessary. Prince George’s county’s collective bargaining agreement only says officers will average 40 hours of work within each seven-day period. Anne Arundel’s contract says police will post schedules on a monthly basis. Howard County’s contract includes some specificity about schedules but also gives the police chief the right to change them to meet the department’s operational needs.

Clearly, the four/three patrol schedule isn’t the only factor in Baltimore’s run of violent crime. But the spike in homicides that the city has experienced beginning in 2015 started a few months after the new schedule went into effect, and the increased attrition coupled with poor recruitment in the period after the Freddie Gray riots meant that it was never executed as envisioned. What police commanders at the time promoted as a revolutionary increase in their flexibility has hamstrung them instead. As shootings and murders spiked, Baltimore was unable to put officers on the street when and where it needed to, and that has clearly put the public at risk.

(Incidentally, the move to a four/three shift was accompanied by a 12 percent raise for officers. It’s not as if the union is being asked to give that back; on the contrary, the city is proposing a $500 bonus, a 3 percent raise retroactive to July 1 and a 2 percent raise next year.)

Meanwhile, police complain about mandatory overtime that can tack five hours to the end of a shift. We don’t blame them. Being a police officer in Baltimore is a dangerous job — witness the case Monday morning when a patrol officer checked on a 7-Eleven in Northeast Baltimore a 3 a.m. only to find a shotgun-wielding man trying to rob the store. The officer fatally shot the would-be robber but without injuries to anyone else. We don’t know whether the officer was working a regular shift or overtime, but we surely don’t want to put police in situations like that when they are exhausted and overworked. That would make a tough situation all the more difficult and could end in tragedy for all involved.

Union officials say they would like to return to the bargaining table for good-faith negotiations with the city. We hope they will do so and will realize the necessity of providing police commanders with the flexibility they need to set shift schedules. If they don’t, city legislators in Annapolis — who control the law governing Baltimore police collective bargaining — should eliminate patrol schedules as a subject for negotiations. We can’t leave public safety up to a contract impasse.

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