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News Opinion Editorial

A smaller, smarter force

With warmer weather and an expected increase in violence approaching, the Baltimore Police Department is burning through its overtime budget at a record clip and stressing the physical capacities of its officers to the limit. City Police Commissioner Anthony Batts says the problem stems from a large number of vacancies among the department's sworn officers and frequent turnover as experienced members of the force leave for higher-paying jobs in the suburbs. Yet it's not at all clear that plugging the gaps with officers on overtime is sustainable — either economically or as a crime-fighting strategy. Over the long run, the city might actually do better with a smaller, better-paid police force that's able to attract and retain the experienced professionals it needs.

As The Sun's Justin Fenton reported this week, there are currently some 460 vacancies among the department's approximately 2,400 sworn staff, and this year the department is likely to again exceed the amount it budgeted for overtime pay. In 2012 the department budged $17 million for overtime but ended up spending $22.8 million. This year the department projects overtime pay will reach $23.5 million in a spending plan that budgeted just $20 million for that purpose. Over the years the department has made numerous attempts to rein in overtime costs, but even at their recent lowest point, in 2010, they still exceeded the budgeted amount.

The strain on the budget isn't the only consequence of the department being short-staffed. It also puts tremendous physical strain on the officers who are pulled off other assignments to take up the slack created by shortages on the patrol force. Earlier this month, the Western District was short as many as eight officers a night, forcing supervisors to draft officers from the previous shift to work the next one as well. Those officers were effectively putting in 16-hour days, a punishing workload few officers could sustain for long without risking their safety and efficiency on the job.

It would be one thing if the increased use of overtime and the physical demands it puts on officers allowed the department to flood the streets with extra patrols that led to a significant reduction in crime. That's what happened in Chicago this year, where a massive show of force in hot-spot areas helped push crime down to levels not seen since the 1960s. Yet Baltimore isn't using its overtime to increase the number of officers on the streets but simply to maintain patrols at normal levels — plugging the gaps rather than increasing its presence. And unlike Chicago, where more police on the beat translated into plummeting violent crime rates, Baltimore has had about the same number of homicides this year as it did last year.

Mr. Batts says that once officers have been on the force a few years and gained enough experience to qualify for promotion, the department's salaries are no longer competitive with those of nearby jurisdictions. Entry-level salaries across the region start around $43,000, but after that, pay levels begin to diverge sharply. A sergeant in Baltimore County, for example, earns on average $101,000, while a city sergeant makes an average of just $76,000. That's led to a brain drain of experienced officers who were trained by the city but who then leave to take more lucrative jobs elsewhere.

Ultimately, Baltimore's perennial problem with overtime pay may have more to do with how its police department is structured and managed than with the crime-fighting strategy it has adopted. Targeting the most violent offenders, getting illegal guns off the streets and forging better relations with the community to enlist residents' cooperation have all helped put a serious dent in crime over the last decade.

But continued progress also depends on retaining the department's most experienced officers; every time one of them leaves for a higher-paying job in the suburbs, his or her replacement has to learn who the bad guys are all over again. It might make more sense to accept the need for a smaller force that pays its officers more competitive salaries, provides more and better training and is able to benefit from their greater experience and professional skills. It's an idea the city police union suggested a year ago, and Mr. Batts should give it serious consideration. In a city where crime, even if improved, is still far too high, it may be difficult to say that the answer is fewer police officers, but it may be the right thing to do.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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