To fill vacancies and fight surging violence, Mayor Catherine Pugh has authorized the hiring of 100 additional officers to patrol Baltimore's streets.
The decision comes after Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said earlier this month that he would reassign 100 of the department's officers to patrol duty amid charges from the police union that the city is "at great risk" because there are not enough officers to adequately cover patrol shifts.
"We're hiring," Pugh spokesman Anthony McCarthy said. "This is a priority for Mayor Pugh. She believes that there has to be a connection between the citizens of Baltimore and the police officers that are sworn to serve and protect them.
"The only way we can do that is if we are properly equipped with the number of officers needed to carry out their mission."
Pugh is authorizing the department to unfreeze 100 positions that the agency was blocked from hiring by the previous administration. The cost of hiring the additional officers — about $3 million — must come from the Police Department's existing $480 million budget.
The department has a force of 2,625 officers, which includes 125 open positions. The 100 new officers Pugh wants hired would be in addition to filling those 125 positions.
Police hope the additional officers will help curb an upswing of robberies, carjackings, shootings and homicides that spiked significantly after the unrest related to the death of Freddie Gray in April 2015.
Maj. James Handley, head of the department's recruitment unit, said his goal is to have all vacancies filled by December. He said he was optimistic because recruits are being tested, trained and hired in numbers that far exceed the sizes of classes over the past four years.
Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, said that the union welcomes Pugh's commitment but that the promise will mean nothing on the street until the department revamps its recruitment and retention efforts and fills the open positions that already exist.
"She can add 1,000 different positions and give us the money to support it — it's not going to matter if we can't hire the people to fill them," Ryan said. "When you talk about projecting for vacancies and shortages and open positions, they are supposed to do that several years in advance. This place has been so mismanaged for so long, that's not occurring."
Handley, however, painted a different picture of recruiting efforts, which he said have rebounded to optimal levels after falling in 2015. In that year, the size of training classes dropped from 38 trainees to 32 to 25. And the first class of 2016 had 19 trainees.
But after that, 48 trainees graduated from a class that began last June, and a current class that started training on Dec. 1 has 42 trainees.
The department's goal is to have three or four classes of between 45 and 50 trainees graduate each year, said Handley, who began supervising recruiting efforts in January 2016.
"As you can see, the class sizes are growing substantially, and we're pretty proud of that," he said. "The numbers were going down and we have rebounded."
He also said the diversity of recruits is better than it has been in four years. Of the 112 police trainees the department hired in 2016, 30 percent were black, 20 percent were Hispanic and 15 percent were women. Twenty percent were also Baltimore residents. Police say those percentages are the highest the department has seen in four years.
Handley said he believes Baltimore police are regaining the community's trust since the unrest in April 2015, and that has aided recruitment efforts. Police also offer starting salaries of $48,900, which Handley said was competitive in the region. The Baltimore County Police Department offers starting salaries of $49,062, according to its website.
Handley said he's already received more than twice as many applications this year than he did at this time last year.
The department has studied other agencies that are successful with recruitment, Handley said. For example, it plans to upgrade its processes to be in line with the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington. The D.C. department uses a paperless system to check backgrounds and references, and also manage applications and recruiting files. Baltimore police are currently searching for a similar internet-based system, which he said would speed up recruitment and hiring.
Recruits typically apply to several police departments. "A lot of candidates take the first offer they get," Handley said.
He also said he would like to outsource testing to a private company that can administer tests nationally. Currently, recruits must travel to Baltimore police headquarters and take a multiple-choice "civil service" test in person. The department hopes to create another testing center at the Center for Urban Families in Mondawmin.
In the meantime, Handley said, the department will continue casting a wide net to attract recruits. Four or five large classes could meet staffing goals, including the additional officers Pugh is authorizing.
City Councilman Brandon Scott, chair of the public safety committee, called Pugh's decision to authorize more hiring in the Police Department good news. He expects the plan will take years to fully implement, so people shouldn't assume it means "we're instantly going to see 100 more officers."
Scott plans to introduce a resolution at the City Council meeting on Monday calling on the city to authorize 50 police "cadet" positions that the department can work to fill quickly by tapping older youths already enrolled in the department's Explorers program and other young men and women in the city who are looking for work.
Davis has acknowledged that he does not have enough officers to fill patrol shifts, but the commissioner has taken issue with the union's claim that the city was at risk.
A recent department report showed that violent crime has surged as the number of officers patrolling the city has declined. About 1,000 officers were assigned to patrol neighborhoods last month, about 10 percent fewer than the year before, according to an annual community police report.
The union says the current figure is closer to 700.
Pugh has pledged to lift any previous hiring restrictions for certain agencies that deliver critical services, such as fire, police and sanitation.
McCarthy said Pugh insists that police have "no hindrances" to the department being able to keep citizens safe and use regular patrols to build trust in neighborhoods.
"She wants to make sure that the grandmother who lives by herself in West Baltimore becomes familiar with the officers who are in her neighborhood," McCarthy said. "She wants them to become familiar by being seen every day and saying hello or by helping her up the steps.
"This is the change in the culture where people start to feel safe again and trust again."