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Police changes at risk

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A delay in opening a state-run booking facility could hamper ambitious plans by the Baltimore Police Department to shift more than 300 officers from desk duty to street patrol, just as internal debate on the plan gets under way.

Police commanders had hoped the state could take over booking prisoners next month, a shift that eventually would free 162 city officers who now process prisoners at each of the nine district stations.

But crowding at the City Detention Center forced corrections officials to house prisoners in the the state's Central Booking and Intake Facility. That, and construction delays, have pushed back the facility's opening and may stall city police plans to phase out the station-house lockups.

"There seems to be no choice but re-evaluate the opening of Central Booking," said Leonard A. Sipes, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. "There will be no Aug. 15 opening. We are in gridlock.

"Centralized booking will become a reality," Mr. Sipes said. "The only point of question now is when."

Three months ago, Baltimore police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier announced plans to move 329 desk officers to the street by staffing some departments with civilians and consolidating others.

Mr. Frazier made his plans after a consultant examined the operation of the department.

But as commanders evaluate the 58-page report, some assumptions critical to the plan's success appear to be in doubt. Aside from the delay in Central Booking -- which affects half the officers under review for being moved to the street -- other problems are becoming apparent.

A bill to make it easier for disabled officers to retire early was delayed in City Council because department cost estimates were nearly $2 million too low. Passage is necessary to free 134 positions.

And the president of the police union is criticizing the $129,000 report as "severely flawed." He argues that many jobs targeted for civilians can be done only by sworn officers.

"The report has no concept of what it takes to run a law enforcement agency," said Officer Gary McLhinney, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3. "It's based on a lot of what ifs -- a lot of speculation that things outside the control of the Police Department are going to change."

The consultant, Management Partners Inc. of Cincinnati, concluded that too many police employees were in administrative positions and not enough were fighting crime.

Of 3,103 sworn officers, 936 are in support positions. They, with the 605 civilian employees, make up nearly 42 percent of the department's strength, the report says.

The study suggests pulling officers from virtually every department. But it also calls for eliminating 140 sworn officer positions. Money saved would be used to hire civilians, who are less costly than officers.

The department argues that this will result in a net increase of officers on the street.

The proposal comes at a time when the department is trying to increase its size. The city benefited from a federal grant in December to hire 76 officers, and in April the mayor announced plans to hire an additional 111 officers.

"On one hand you are saying you are putting more police officers on the street," Officer McLhinney said. "On the other hand, you are reducing the total number of police officers to hire civilians."

Maj. Walter J. Tuffy, who is in charge of implementing the report's recommendations, said the reduction in officer positions needed to pay for the new civilian staff. "The goal is to increase the strength on the street."

The consultant's report predicts criticism, but says commanders agreed with most of its conclusions. "The recommendations are not easy to execute since their implementation will involve changes in policy, changes in practice and changes in tradition," the report says.

On Thursday, Mr. Frazier said the plans are "very much on track" and emphasized that the two-year process is just beginning.

"When you get right down to it, everyone tries to protect their interests," Mr. Frazier said. "And that's why, at my level, we have two rules: Does this have a direct impact on violent crime -- do you put crooks in jail -- and does your job require arrest authority? And if it doesn't, it's a very good chance your job will be reviewed for civilianization."

But the largest part of the plan hinges on shutting the city lockups and transferring all newly arrested suspects to the $54 million Central Booking Facility.

But the state, which also operates the detention center, is under court order to ease crowding there and has begun using the booking facility for the overflow.

At times, there are more than 3,500 inmates for 2,933 beds. "Every conceivable place where you can put an inmate has been used for housing at the Baltimore City Detention Center," Mr. Sipes said.

District lockups, which Mr. Frazier wants to convert to office space, also are being used to house inmates, as are prison gyms, dayrooms and educational centers.

Mr. Sipes said the surge has been sparked by a "dramatic" increase in arrests -- partly because of drug raids ordered by Mr. Frazier -- and a backlog in Circuit Court of several thousand cases.

Mr. Frazier said Thursday that he has received no official word about the booking center delay. "To my knowledge, the first opening date for central booking is Aug. 15," he said.

"I think it is a workable plan in the 18- to 24-month guidelines," the commissioner added. "I think we will achieve our objective of 329 [new street officers] unless the jail absolutely freezes."

Officer McLhinney, the union head, questioned whether Central Booking can serve the entire city as promised. "The state already has chosen to use it as an overflow facility instead of addressing their real problem, which is prison space," he said.

According to the report, the next biggest group of officers to be shifted out of desk jobs comes from the Casual Section, for officers who can't perform normal police duties because of injuries, whether short- or long-term. The report said the average length of stay in the section -- 134 officers at the time of the study -- is nearly three years.

City law prohibits injured officers from retiring on disability as long as the officer can perform "any" police-related activity.

But a bill to ease those restrictions -- eventually freeing 134 officer positions -- is still in a City Council committee. Councilwoman Sheila Dixon of the 4th District said the Police Department did not provide funding reports on time and the price tag of the proposal to retire disabled officers was more than double the original estimate of $1.4 million.

The bill will come up again Oct. 5, and Ms. Dixon said she expects it to be passed. It is backed by the police union, commissioner and mayor.

The consultant report leaves virtually no department untouched. recommends "civilianizing" the legal affairs unit, freeing five officers; the property division, freeing 12 of 37 officers; public affairs, where four officers are detailed; and the 911 communications center, freeing 57.

The report also says that Central Records, where 22 officers and 118 civilians work, and the personnel bureau -- where 27 officers recruit and conduct background checks on new employees -- should be turned over to a private company.

The report recommends that the three sergeants and 15 officers in the Traffic Investigation Unit -- which investigates fatal and near-fatal crashes -- be reassigned to district stations. The proposal is the subject of internal debate, and Mr. Frazier said part of the unit may remain.

Officer McLhinney said he is concerned about replacing sworn officers with civilians in many instances, particularly in the property division, where millions of dollars in drugs, money and other evidence is processed annually.

Maj. Sidney R. Hyatt, head of the unit that includes 911 dispatchers and the telephone reporting unit, said the shift in his department already is under way. The 911 center is 90 percent civilian, he said, and the 45 officers who take reports over the phone will be replaced by civilians.

"It's going to be something to get used to," Major Hyatt said. "It's just going to be a learning process. I knew this was coming -- I had dealt with the consultants. I think this will allow more officers on the street to respond to the needs of citizens."

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