We are coming up on one year since Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh fired Kevin Davis as police commissioner. Darryl De Sousa took over in mid-January but only lasted four months; he somehow got the mayor’s nomination and the City Council’s confirmation without having filed federal income tax returns for 2013, 2014 and 2015. Gary Tuggle took charge in May. He has served competently as an interim commissioner since then, and crime dropped a bit on his watch. But, alas, Tuggle pulled himself out of the running for the full-time job in October.
Pugh announced her latest choice for commissioner in mid-November: Fort Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald. But now scattered clouds have formed over his nomination, and it remains to be seen whether Fitzgerald will get to command a police force that, more than ever, needs strong, wise and inspiring leadership.
I say inspiring because one of the most important jobs of the next commissioner will be a call to service — the recruiting and training of new officers. We need them because we do not have enough of them, and that’s something a lot of Baltimoreans sense and worry about.
The department is still trying to make up for the officers who left after the April 2015 unrest. The department hired 91 officers in 2015 but lost 249. In 2016, the department hired 111 but lost 225. By then, according to the FBI, Baltimore had 419 fewer officers than it did in 2011, though Davis put that number closer to 500. (I mark 2011 in this history because that was the last time the city ended a year with fewer than 200 homicides. Since 2015, we have had four consecutive years of 300-plus.)
In 2017, the department saw a net gain of four officers; it hired 207 while losing 203. By the end of that year, according to the FBI, Baltimore had 2,516 officers. That’s the latest number that was available as of this writing, so I am going to use it for an analysis I have been meaning to run for a few years.
Ever since I arrived in Baltimore by train in the mid-1970s, I have been struck by the city’s physical size — the way it sprawls out east and west with thousands of rowhouses. I am still awed at times when I drive or walk around parts of the city, especially in areas where there are long rows of vacant houses. It has always struck me as a major challenge for patrol officers: To have enough presence in enough places, many of them blighted, to have a deterrent effect on the crime rate, particularly the violent crime that occurs in abandoned corners of the city.
We always measure a police force by the number of officers per capita — that is, say, the number of officers per 100,000 residents. But I’ve often wondered what officer density looked like — that is, the number of officers per square mile in Baltimore and other cities.
So I did some math, based on square miles of land and the FBI’s 2017 police employee data, and here’s what my ink-stained hands came up with: New York, praised for its reductions in crime over the last several years — with fewer total homicides than Baltimore in both 2017 and 2018 — has more than 36,000 officers for 302 square miles. That’s a stunning officer density of 120 per square mile.
The District of Columbia, with more than 3,800 officers, has 62 per square mile. Chicago has 54 per square mile, and Boston has 45 officers for each of that city’s 48 square miles.
Baltimore is running along at about 31 officers per square mile. This raw math explains, in part, why many people who live here, work here and own businesses do not feel as safe as they should. It explains why companies and institutions hire their own security, and why the city’s biggest employer wants to establish its own police force.
And it gets us back to the Baltimore police commissioner and why, starting at the top, the department needs an all-out push — beyond the efforts already being made — to attract hundreds of new officers to this beleaguered city. The commissioner, along with other city officials and the Greater Baltimore Committee, all need to get behind a sustained call to noble public service: Come to Baltimore and help us. We’re not looking for head-bangers. We’re looking for bright young men and women who want a life of service to others. We also need experienced officers and detectives who want to serve where they can really make a difference.
We should offer greater incentives, too, starting with better pay for officers and command staff.
This message needs to be bold and loud, and it needs to come from an inspiring leader who can attract more and better recruits. If that’s Joel Fitzgerald, great. If not, we should move on, and fast.