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Baltimore Police hiring woes continue, alarming federal judge overseeing mandated reform efforts

The Baltimore Police Department’s critical shortage of officers continues to slow internal affairs investigations, contributes to low morale and is delaying many of the reforms required under a federal consent decree reached nearly three years ago, a recent report says.

U.S. District Court Judge James K. Bredar, overseeing the mandated changes, said the lack of new hires has become dire.

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Staffing is “one of the most critical crisis areas confronting the department,” Bredar said in court Wednesday. He said he will order the department to submit monthly hiring and attrition numbers to the court.

“I hope I’m serving notice that the court is alarmed and pulling the fire alarm," Bredar said of the staffing levels. “This is the patient bleeding out.”

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The consent decree monitoring team also cited “discouraging figures” that continue to show more officers leave the department than join it, according to a semiannual report it released this week. Despite a very public recruitment effort, Baltimore actually finished 2019 with 31 fewer officers than when the year started. The monitors — made up of lawyers, policing and civil rights experts — wrote that ongoing challenges to staffing will have staggering effects on the reform effort.

The monitors found that anticipated gains in recruitment and retention "have not yet materialized and remain largely conceptual.” A consultant hired under terms of the decree recently released a report concluding that the department needs to hire 300 more sworn officers and 100 civilians to adequately staff patrol, and other critical areas, such as internal affairs.

“We need to get a lot better and move a lot faster,” Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said Wednesday outside the federal courthouse.

Harrison , along with other officials from the city, the U.S. Department of Justice and the monitoring team provided an updates on reforms to U.S. District J Bredar during an all day hearing.

The department launched a marketing campaign last summer that significantly increased applications but has not yet resulted in a large number of new hires.

Harrison said the department is working to reduce the amount of time it takes for candidates to be cleared for hiring. The delay stems from candidates having to undergo an application process, including a fitness test and background check. To help reduce that time, the department has partnered with Kentech Consulting to conduct background checks.

“We had to go and fix a lot of the processes in recruitment," Harrison said.

The department has reduced the process from one year to about 120 days. A new recruitment class that started earlier this month has 37 recruits, one of the largest classes, he said.

The department aims to schedule six recruitment classes over the coming year. Training at the department’s new police academy at the University of Baltimore downtown began this month, though it’s not scheduled to be fully operational in April, city officials said Wednesday.

The consent decree was reached between the city and Justice Department in April 2017 after a federal investigation found officers routinely violated residents’ civil rights, especially in predominantly poor black neighborhoods. The consent decree, with requirements that have taken some cities up to a decade to meet, mandates improvement on how police interact with youths, respond to residents with mental disabilities, deal with protesters and respond to sexual assault victims.

The officer shortage is forcing department leaders to make difficult staffing decisions, including potentially eliminating some units based on findings by the independent consultant.

“It is expected that a good deal of political will be required to fully implement the Staffing Plan,” the monitors wrote. "Functions and units may have to be cut back, eliminated or relocated. Personnel may need to be reassigned. Civilians may replace sworn personnel in certain assignments. Recruitment and hiring efforts must be sustainably improved, and attrition must be reduced. Additional fiscal resources may be required to satisfy the Plan’s recommendations.”

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The problem has contributed to low morale, according to the monitors. A survey of officers found staffing to be a top concern.

“Participants believe that, due to staffing problems, officers are often promoted too quickly," the monitors said.

Overall, the monitors warned that the progress BPD has made so far is positive but the work will only get more challenging.

“The BPD is still in the ‘easy part’ of the reform process — policy revision, training, self-evaluation, planning," the monitors wrote. "BPD has yet to prove that it can do the ‘hard part.'”

In addition to an understaffed internal affairs unit, the department lacks critical technology upgrades.

It is expected to hire a vendor for a new Records Management System that supports electronic field-based reporting, although it likely won’t be in full use for another two years, according to the monitors. The upgraded technology is needed, in part, to track the department’s compliance with reforms.

A lack of technology improvements is slowing down officers on the street.

The monitors noted that the department has begun using the Maryland State Police E-tix system during car stops, which saves time, but a majority of patrol cars still aren’t equipped with it.

Training on the department’s use of force policies is a critical part of the consent decree. A new Performance Review Board pilot program will review serious use of force incidents in an effort to improve policy or training. The board is made up exclusively of deputy commissioners.

The monitoring team also is expected in the coming months to do its own “comprehensive review of BPD use of force incidents and reporting,” looking at incidents from 2019, monitors wrote.

Monitors examined new policies that are meant to protect residents’ First Amendment rights. The DOJ investigations found that officers “were engaged in a pattern or practice of violating the First Amendment by routinely responding to oral criticisms, insults and non-violent provocations by using unreasonable force,” the monitors said.

They cited recent incidents involving officer Arthur Williams and Sgt. Ethan Newburg, who “have been charged with crimes for using unreasonable force and bringing criminal charges in retaliation for the exercise of free speech rights.”

THe Newberg case, the monitors wrote, is “particularly troubling, because as an experienced first-line supervisor with 24 years on the job, he has been setting an example for potentially dozens of patrol officers.”

Williams is no longer with the department. He was sentenced to nine months in prison on misconduct in office charges. Newberg’s case is still pending.

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The police department is expected to release its first annual audit evaluating how it has been following policies protecting First Amendment rights.

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