Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts said Wednesday that he'll eliminate 212 officer positions — all vacant — from the department, marking the first significant reduction in the ranks in decades.
Shrinking the size of the police force will be offset by new staffing strategies that will put more officers on the streets overnight when crime spikes, Batts told City Council members during a nearly two-hour budget hearing.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake backs the approach.
"My No. 1 focus has always been less about the size of the force and more about ensuring that we are effectively and efficiently using the resources we have to achieve sustainable reductions in crime," the mayor said in a statement.
She said a new contract with the police union will allow for better management of police resources, including a projected reduction in overtime costs that routinely run millions of dollars over budget
"Once in place, the new police contract will help us to more efficiently use what we have, reduce overtime costs and put more officers on the streets during peak periods of crime."
Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and Councilman Brandon M. Scott commended the administration on the strategy.
"They are putting more officers on the streets, and that is what I have been pounding — foot patrols, foot patrols — that is what makes neighborhoods feel safe when they see officers actually walking the beat," Young said. "I would like to see a smaller, well-paid, well-trained police force. We're not the big city that we used to be, but yet we have the same number of police officers."
The proposed police budget is $444 million, roughly 18 percent of the $2.5 billion budget proposed for all city agencies in the fiscal year that begins July 1. The police budget is an increase from $429 million in the current spending plan.
The size of the city police force has remained largely unchanged in recent years with 2,821 officers in the current fiscal year, compared with 2,953 in fiscal 2011.
That puts Baltimore at one of the highest staffing levels in the country. A survey by Governing Magazine showed the city had 47.4 officers per 10,000 residents, second only to Washington, D.C., and higher than Chicago, Wilmington, Del., Philadelphia and New York.
Oakland, where Batts was chief for about two years, has 15.7 officers per 10,000 residents. West Coast departments generally have significantly less than East Coast agencies.
The administration says that eliminating the 212 vacant officer positions will free money for the department to increase pay under the new police contract, which calls for salaries to jump by at least 13 percent across the board next year.
Officials also said additional savings in overtime will come from the new 10-hour, 35-minute shifts that officers will work four days a week.
This year, overtime is projected to cost $27.5 million, in excess of the $20.5 million that was budgeted. Overtime costs ran about $3.5 million over the $20 million that was budgeted in fiscal 2013 and $5.8 million over the $17 million budgeted in fiscal 2012.
Gene Ryan, vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police lodge, said the new work schedule will result in residents seeing "more uniformed police than they will have in several years." He said the union believes better-paid officers will work harder.
"When you boost morale, it's like putting 10 extra cops in an area," Ryan said. Of the cuts, he said "it's not a drastic downsizing" and said he sees the department becoming a "leaner, meaner crime-fighting machine."
Despite the pressure for the police to reduce overtime costs, longtime Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke cautioned Batts to be sure that his staff feels empowered to request additional officers when necessary so that safety isn't compromised.
Batts said he is confident that his district-level majors "are not afraid to speak up."
"I am not going to let public safety suffer," he said.
Among other budget highlights, Batts said the proposed budget includes $13.9 million for homeland security and intelligence policing, $5.5 million for special operations in the aviation division, $12.5 million for recruitment and training and $32 million to target violent criminals.
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The budget also calls for the creation of 35 positions, including 11 full-time officers to patrol the area near the Horseshoe Casino, to be funded from the city's share of casino revenue. The budget also will add 15 crime analysts and nine information technology professionals.
"We will continue to improve our services for the residents of Baltimore while endeavoring to improve conditions of employment for our most valuable assets, our people, the men and women who are sworn to uphold safety, the ones who get the job done on a regular basis," Batts told the council.
The council is set to resume its budget deliberations Thursday with presentations by the city school system, the Departments of Transportation and Public Works, and the Baltimore Development Corp., among others.