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Building a better police force [Editorial]

When Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was campaigning for her job three years ago, she proposed hiring 300 new police officers. In a city perennially worried about crime, the idea was intuitively appealing. Since then, the department has been hiring at a steady clip — on average 184 officers a year, equivalent to about 6 percent of the force. The only trouble is that during that time, the department was losing officers at a rate of 240 a year. The result is that there are actually fewer Baltimore police officers in uniform now than when the mayor took office.

Something clearly wasn't working, and to the credit of the mayor, the police department and the city police union, Baltimore is on the verge of trying something new. A proposed new contract for city police officers would shift Baltimore to a strategy that emphasizes the quality of officers over the quantity and makes smart changes to put those officers where they're needed most.

Much of the city's recruitment and retention problem stems from the competition Baltimore faces from its suburbs to attract and keep the best officers. Pay for new recruits is basically comparable between the city and Baltimore County, for example, but after several years on the force, it becomes much more financially attractive to serve in the county. The city found a particular problem with retaining those who had been on the force for five to seven years, meaning that it lost officers just as they became skilled veterans. The new contract doesn't quite erase the financial incentive to jump to the county, but it lessens it significantly by boosting pay 13 percent across the board over the next year and building in 3 percent raises after 7 and 15 years of service.

The city expects to afford that partly by reducing the budgeted size of the force to the actual number of officers now on duty, and partly by reducing overtime.

Baltimore's police department has historically run up big overtime bills as it struggled to deal with crime surges, and the new proposal provides a smart way to address the problem. Rather than dividing the force into three daily 8-hour shifts, the new proposal creates four 10-hour shifts, meaning that there will be periods of overlap at times of day when the department receives the most calls. The contract would also shift some officers out of specialized units and onto patrol. That means the department would routinely have more police on the streets at times when they're needed rather than having to pay overtime to achieve the same effect.

What the officers get out of it, besides better base pay, is a schedule that gives them three days off per week rather than two. Given the stresses of the job, that's significant and should help reduce burnout. The contract also reinstates a tuition reimbursement program, a popular benefit that was eliminated during budget cuts five years ago.

Many of the proposed changes in this contract stem from a consultant's report that Commissioner Anthony W. Batts commissioned, but they also follow closely a set of ideas from a study the city police union released two years ago. That study warned of a dangerous level of inexperience in the department that hampered its ability to build the kind of high-quality cases that lead to arrest and conviction. What's more, the union report said that a high level of officers with less experience was associated with greater police corruption and misconduct. Rather than seeking to expand a force that is already the second largest in the nation when compared to the size of the city it serves, the union suggested increasing standards for new recruits, providing better training and creating incentives for them to stay. This new proposal shifts the city significantly in that direction.

Baltimore's crime fighting efforts — and the actual rates of crime — have gone through enough gyrations in the last decade and a half to prove that there is no quick fix, no new strategy, that is going to instantly solve the city's problems. Rather, it is going to take a long effort on a multitude of fronts to change the conditions that have fostered Baltimore's legacy of violence and addiction. This proposed contract could be a part of such a long-term solution by fostering a better police force that is more deeply rooted in the community. The union's members are scheduled to vote on it on May 20, and we hope and expect they will approve it.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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