Homicides in Baltimore are at an all-time high, and across the city citizens are begging for police resources that they are being told just aren’t available. By now everyone has heard that the department is short officers and down significantly from its heyday of 3,000-plus officers. A few years ago there were over a thousand officers assigned to district patrol. At a recent hearing, police representatives informed the City Council Public Safety Committee that there were around 750 officers assigned to district patrol.
Couple these factors with district commanders struggling daily with their shift strength (thanks to a collectively bargained schedule courtesy of the former police commissioner), and you have two concurrent crises. Crisis one is a murder epidemic with a rate higher than even that of the deadly 1990s, and crisis two is having less police resources to deal with the immediate violence.
Let me be clear: The only way Baltimore will ever truly reduce our level of gun violence is by treating gun violence like we do any other disease — comprehensively through a public health data based approach. The City Council’s Public Safety Committee recently released our comprehensive strategy Live To Be More ,and we intend on working tirelessly to have it adopted by Mayor Catherine Pugh’s administration. However, while Live To Be More focuses mainly on long-term, non-police efforts to reduce violence, there are some immediate police related efforts that could provide much needed help.
How can you effectively respond to more incidents of crime while having a few hundred fewer officers to respond? The answer is simple: You can’t! Well, at least not by operating in the same manner. When resources are at a premium, one must make sure that they are being used as efficiently as possible. Here are two simple solutions that may not solve all problems but will help a city in crisis better deal with the issue at hand.
Cities across the country have for many years used online and telephone reporting of certain crimes as a simple but effective way to provide citizens with services needed while simultaneously allowing for resources to be used more efficiently. A few years ago I worked with Police Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld and later Commissioner Anthony Batts to create an online portal for reporting minor crimes and to resurrect the telephone reporting unit at BPD. Unfortunately, both resources are being severely underutilized even as the city grapples with the double edged sword of increased violence and fewer police.
As of Oct. 28th there had been 5,004 larcenies from autos in Baltimore. The overwhelming majority of these incidents were handled by a patrol officer via a 911 emergency call. Will an officer physically responding to write a report for a busted car window hours after it happened increase the chances of the suspect being caught or preventing the next similar incident? No. Culturally we have long since equated receiving a physical report from a police officer in person with an increased chance of our cases being solved and others prevented. The harsh truth is that police will crack the cases and trends of these types of crime by analyzing data and deploying resources into the appropriate area. But that’s not possible when you don’t have enough patrol officers and the ones you do have have no time to be proactive in preventing violent or non-violent crime due to the call load.
It is for that reason that I believe BPD needs to alter its operations while we face the violence crisis and push all possible minor crimes (larceny from auto, vandalism) to the telephone reporting unit or online reporting. Yes, it will be a culture shock for many in Baltimore, but it is up to the leaders of the city to fully explain how it could improve service. This move would free up many hours of service for patrol units throughout the city to be proactive in preventing these and other types of incidents, especially violence.
I understand that not everyone will be comfortable with reporting incidents without seeing a person in uniform, and there is a solution for that as well. Auxiliary police units are common throughout the country. Typically they are trained uniformed volunteers who are used to supplement sworn officers by handling traffic details for sporting events, parades, handling reports for minor accidents and — you guessed it — crimes like larceny from auto. In Baltimore, each time there is a sporting or other major event, officers are deployed from the already stretched patrol districts for traffic and crowd details even as the homicides continue to pile up. Having auxiliary units in each district would be a welcomed and certainly utilized resource.
A few months ago, I introduced a council resolution specifically about these topics, and we will be having a hearing to discuss them in the near future. No, these ideas are not a panacea to all of Baltimore’s crime problems. But, they are at minimum things that should be discussed considering the circumstances.
Brandon M. Scott is a Baltimore City councilman and the chair of the council's Public Safety Committee; his email is Brandon.Scott@baltimorecity.gov.