One Annapolis police officer after another has quit the small force in recent months, complaining that he's stuck in a dead-end job and disillusioned by the prospects for change.
The department of 121 sworn officers has shrunk to 110 and is expected to go even lower by the end of the year as morale plummets among the remaining officers on patrol.
And while those officers complain that entrenched mid-level management has left them with no room to advance, administrators also are grumbling because they are about to be forced back into patrol cars to fill out daily shifts stretched thin by the departure of so many officers.
"It used to be eight guys on the road, and now there's five or six," said one patrol officer.
"You hurt out there when you don't have enough people."
Eleven officers have resigned since last spring, five state troopers hired last winter have been offered their old jobs back, and a half-dozen other city officers are interviewing with larger police departments in Maryland.
Chief Harold Robbins acknowledged last week that his force is caught in a double bind.
Annapolis officers are being recruited by other jurisdictions that can offer higher pay, better benefits and bonuses, such as take-home cars.
But the city can't compete for experienced officers because the current police contract requires that all newly hired officers, regardless of experience, receive entry-level salaries.
Union leaders have promised to consider revising the contract, which expires in July, to allow the department to match the pay an experienced officer already is making.
"I believe that will give us some top candidates who previously couldn't afford a pay cut," Chief Robbins said.
"Every agency is interested in certified officers these days, so a lot of them are shopping around."
He insisted that the department is not facing a crisis, but many veterans and newcomers, alike, complained in recent interviews.
"I think the problem is that some of the management just doesn't seem to be in touch with the guys on the street," said a former state trooper who lost his job because of state budget cuts last October.
A number of officers are disappointed that the command structure has changed little since Chief Robbins took over in the fall of 1990.
"A lot of guys are frustrated because the old guard is so entrenched," said a 10-year veteran. "They expected more changes."
Annapolis residents and officers credit Chief Robbins and Assistant Chief Joseph Johnson for restoring the department's image, which had been tarnished by charges of racism and mismanagement.
Business leaders have complimented the increased professionalism, and relations among police and residents of public housing projects have improved.
"I think there's been a lot of progress," said Alderman Theresa DeGraff, who chairs the city council's Public Safety Committee. "If there's bad morale now, all I can say is that the morale was horrible a couple years ago."
Officers agree that morale isn't as low as when former chief John C. Schmitt retired, but other departments look more attractive to them.
Many are also disgusted with the city's handling of disability claims and afraid that they will be unable to retire with benefits if injured in the line of duty.
Two officers have filed appeals in Circuit Court claiming that a volunteer board acted improperly in failing to retire them.
A judge ruled in August that the board had violated the civil rights of a third officer and ordered a new hearing.
The city's Public Safety Disability Retirement Board scheduled a daylong hearing Wednesday to review the claims of three officers, but lawyers for the officers called off the hearing and threatened to have the city held in contempt after only four of the five board members showed up.
Annapolis lawmakers, meanwhile, have begun an investigation into the system of retiring police officers who are hurt in the line of duty.
Chief Robbins acknowledged that some officers had high hopes of dramatic changes and expected him to clean house.
But he said he's still working to increase management training for supervisors.
Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins, who hired Chief Robbins from St. Petersburg, Fla., said the city can take steps to improve professional training and offer competitive pay and benefits with other jurisdictions.
But he said the city cannot afford to create more command positions to allow opportunities for advancement or offer take-home cars and other perks.
"I understand it. If you take a job, you want to advance, and if you can't advance as quick as you want, you have to either be content or look elsewhere," he said.