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Baltimore blames shortage of officers on background check backlog. But $1.5M to help fix it has gone unspent

Baltimore blames shortage of officers on background check backlog. But $1.5M to help fix it has gone unspent
Baltimore police trainees sit alongside their classmates as they wait to graduate on Feb. 1 at police headquarters. (Ulysses Muñoz / The Baltimore Sun)

More than $1.5 million allocated nearly a year and a half ago to help resolve a backlog of background checks for police recruits — which officials have blamed for a shortage of officers on the streets — has gone unspent, according to department expense figures.

The city’s Board of Estimates approved $1.975 million in October 2017 to pay the Chicago-based firm Kentech Consulting to conduct significant portions of background investigations for police applicants. Police officials claimed the arrangement would speed up the process dramatically.

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However, the department has spent only $184,000 under the contract to date — for Kentech to review 176 applications — and the head of the department’s recruitment unit said he stopped sending applications to the company in December after determining it was “not beneficial.”

Now, the department’s use of the funds is being reviewed as part of a broader assessment of recruitment efforts by acting Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, who still must be confirmed by the City Council, officials said.

“Commissioner Harrison is looking at all aspects of the recruitment process,” said Matt Jablow, a police spokesman. “It’s a priority for him.”

Jablow said the department stopped sending applications to Kentech because it is “balancing trying to make the most use of Kentech with spending this money wisely.” Kentech could be used again in the future, he said, pending the commissioner’s review.

Kentech declined to comment, citing company policy to not disclose “private information.”

Members of the City Council — including Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, who sits on the Board of Estimates — said they are happy for Harrison’s review and hope it produces answers.

Young said he doesn’t understand why such little progress has been made in clearing the background check backlog given the money that was allocated and the assurances from police officials that the Kentech contract would allow them to speed up the process.

“This is a part of our crime fighting strategy, and if we can't get the recruits in here as quick as we like, then we're biting our own hand — [while] paying somebody to do a job that's not being done,” Young said.

Harrison’s review comes amid questions about a net loss of officers in 2018 and criticism from the police union that years of poor management has left the city in a dangerous position — one in which officers are only responding at night to the most violent and pressing 911 calls.

The Sun reported earlier this month that the department suffered a net loss of 36 police officers last year, hiring 184 recruits but losing 220 to attrition. That loss came despite Mayor Catherine Pugh highlighting recruitment as a priority and calling for the department to hire hundreds more officers.

When asked about the net loss of officers in 2018, Pugh pointed earlier this month to the backlog of background checks as a major culprit.

“We’ve got a backlog, and we’ve got to fix it,” she said.

Then-interim Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle — who Harrison replaced Feb. 11 — held a news conference to announce the department would stop performing background checks for other city agencies for six months so investigators could focus on vetting potential police recruits.

He said the city had seen an increase in applications, up to an average of 81 a week, but needed to “expand our bandwidth to deal with those backgrounds.”

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Neither Pugh nor Tuggle mentioned the Kentech contract, or the decision by police officials to stop using the funds provided under it.

Asked more recently about the contract, Pugh said she didn’t know how the Police Department was using it or where the “breakdown” was in processing background checks, but that Harrison would be “revamping that whole process.”

The Kentech contract was approved by the Board of Estimates, which Pugh controls, by a 4-1 vote — with Young dissenting on his belief that the contract should have been awarded to a local firm. It was backed at the time by then-Police Commissioner Kevin Davis and other commanders, including then-Deputy Commissioner Jason Johnson, who oversaw recruitment and left in early 2018 after Pugh fired Davis.

Johnson, now president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, said the move to outsource background checks brought the department in line with other large U.S. police agencies and was designed to save money by freeing detectives from doing administrative work.

Kentech has done work for much larger police forces, including New York and Chicago. As part of its Baltimore contract, Kentech officials told city leaders it would open a Baltimore office, though it wasn’t clear whether it had. Young said he believed it had not; Jablow said he was not aware whether it had or not.

Jablow also sought to downplay the importance of the contract overall, calling it “limited” in scope from the start. He said police officials always knew the company could not perform certain aspects of the background checks that are required of police recruits — such as reviews of sensitive criminal records, which must be handled by sworn officers — and that, partly because of that, the company was never viewed as an answer to the backlog issue.

“The long-term solution to the backlog problem is getting more sworn officers into the recruitment section,” he said. “Kentech was never going to fix the backlog problem. We knew that.”

Young said he and other city officials were led to believe something else.

Earlier this month, the head of the recruitment unit, Maj. Brian Hance, said at a City Council hearing that he had stopped sending applications to Kentech after determining the company couldn’t conduct full background checks.

"We haven't officially gotten rid of them, but we’ve talked about it,” Hance said. “What I’ve realized is that Kentech cannot do a complete, 100 percent background. They can only do a portion of those steps, which is very small. And because of that amount of work that they do and the cost, it is not beneficial to our agency.”

When the contract was awarded, Kentech executives joined police officials in saying the company would play a critical role in reducing the backlog. Kentech founder Kenneth Coats promised his company would work 10 times faster than sworn officers doing the job.

Maj. James Handley, Hance’s predecessor in charge of the recruitment unit, told the Board of Estimates that the department hadn’t kept up with attrition for 15 years, saying his unit’s staff had recently been cut in half, to 12 background investigators, that those investigators were overwhelmed, and that Kentech’s help was necessary to turn the tide.

“By outsourcing, I’m going to have double and triple the number of background investigators to do the lengthy work, the sending out the references, the checking with other law enforcement agencies, getting police reports,” Handley said, according to a transcript of the meeting. “It’s really the boots-on-the-ground work that we need done.”

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Hance said earlier this month that he had seven investigators in his unit, down from the dozen that Handley had, and each one is handling more than 30 cases at a time — far more than the average in the field. He said he was looking to bring in six temporary investigators while he searches for permanent replacements to bring his total staff to 15.

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