Dixon summons officers for a talk

The Baltimore Sun

Mayor Sheila Dixon is calling for 20 police officers from each of the city's nine police districts to attend a closed-door meeting so that she can tell them directly how she expects them to cut crime in a city that is on a pace to exceed 300 homicides for the first time since 1999.

Dixon scheduled her session for Tuesday - a day after City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake has planned a forum with officers at the police union hall in Hampden.

The meetings with the rank-and-file officers are efforts by the city's top two elected leaders to demonstrate how seriously they are taking the surge in crime, particularly as both face campaign challengers this summer.

But they are for different purposes: Dixon's spokesman said she wants to communicate her plan directly to officers to bypass union interference, while Rawlings-Blake's spokesman said the City Council president wants to solicit ideas from officers on how to best police the city.

It represents the latest tussle over the city's crime-fighting strategy as politicians vie for support from the police union and try to persuade voters that they have the answers.

Police union officials have sharply criticized Dixon's crime plan as nothing more than a public relations ploy to get her re-elected. After pressure, the department ended on Thursday an initiative backed by Dixon in which homicide detectives were forced to walk foot beats.

Dixon will not take questions from officers but "anticipates sharing her vision and her plan in a very clear and direct way," said her spokesman, Anthony McCarthy. He said the meeting would last less than a half-hour.

Other session

Rawlings-Blake, who is seeking to retain her council president seat in the coming election, requested a "shareholder-style" session with officers, said Paul M. Blair Jr., the police union president.

Blair said Rawlings-Blake asked for the meeting with officers about a week ago, and then the Dixon administration requested a similar meeting, which he rebuffed.

McCarthy said the mayor didn't need the union's permission to meet with officers and arranged her own meeting with them at police headquarters.

City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., a candidate who is challenging Dixon in this fall's mayoral contest, questioned why the mayor wasn't going to the daily roll call at station houses to communicate with officers.

"We're already stretched thin with police officers on the street," Mitchell said. "Instead of taking officers off the street, if the interim mayor was serious about crime, she would take time out of her schedule to go to the roll call. That's where the officers are."

The police union and the city are in the midst of contract negotiations.

McCarthy said the mayor wants to speak directly with officers about her plans "without the filter of the union bureaucracy."

Blair shot back: "It has nothing to do with [contract negotiations]. You want us to buy into a crime plan, we want to know what the crime plan is and what the mission is. This is more about why morale is down in this agency, why we're having trouble retaining policing and homicides left and right in this city. She wants to spin it as part of contract talks, let her do it."

Through yesterday, 140 people had died in homicides in the first 166 days this year - 18 more than last year, according to police statistics. Nonfatal shootings have increased 37 percent this year, statistics show.

Much of the increase in violence has been attributed to a rise in gang activity fueled by cycles of retribution, in addition to violence associated with illegal drug-dealing.

Dixon has tried to push police to implement more community policing measures, such as foot patrols, as a way for officers to build trust among residents in the city's most crime-ridden neighborhoods. Her plans also have called for targeting illegal guns and repeat violent offenders, and getting other city agencies to work closely with police to help rebuild troubled neighborhoods.

But the police union has complained that many of the measures Dixon has proposed won't be effective unless the city makes a greater effort to hire more officers. A police spokesman said yesterday that the department has 2,980 officers and is currently funded to employ 3,118 officers - a shortfall of 138.

Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm and his top commanders will not be present when Dixon addresses officers at police headquarters Tuesday, McCarthy said. Two days ago, Dixon briefly appeared at the department's weekly Comstat session - where commanders review crime trends and plot enforcement strategies - and talked to commanders about her expectations, McCarthy said.

"I think the mayor wanted everyone to be very clear of what her expectations are," McCarthy said.

He declined to elaborate.

McCarthy said Dixon's meeting was not mandatory. But that is not how at least one commander in the Northern District interpreted it. Deputy Maj. Ross Buzzuro sent a memorandum to his supervisors Thursday in which he described the meeting as "mandatory."


"To facilitate this, all Northern District trainees, administrative, and light duty officers will attend," as well as three officers each from the day and evening shifts, Buzzuro wrote. He added that their attendance would not be covered by overtime.

Mitchell also said he thought it was "strange" that officers would not be allowed to ask questions or give their input at Dixon's meeting.

"Again, if the interim mayor is serious about fighting crime you'd have a serious dialogue with officers and you'd have a give and take," he said. "It shows a lack of leadership.

McCarthy said that Dixon "enjoys a strong relationship with police officers in this city."

"She wants them to do their jobs," McCarthy said. "She doesn't want them to be social workers or community activists. ... She wants them to get people off the streets who are perpetrating the gang problem and carrying illegal guns."


Sun reporter Sumathi Reddy contributed to this article.

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