Baltimore's deadliest month of 2008 coincided with substantial reductions to the Police Department's overtime budget - cuts that the police union president says are interfering with investigations and diminishing neighborhood patrols.
Prompted by a directive from Mayor Sheila Dixon to cut more than $21 million this year amid the worsening economy, the department spent $800,000 less for overtime in November than in the same month the previous year, according to former homicide Detective Robert F. Cherry, who was elected union president this fall.
The month saw 31 homicides, the worst November in nine years. The trend has continued, with six killings in the first six days of this month.
"Detectives are being told, you can't finish working a case, you have to go home. We can't put foot men in a certain area, it will cost overtime. And district commanders are being beaten down if they spend over," Cherry said. "You're lying to the public if you say we're attacking all forms of crime, and you're lying if you say the budget cuts have no effect."
Officials said they could not confirm the $800,000 drop in overtime but acknowledged that spending has been scaled back in certain areas, including overtime. A police spokesman said the department does not expect to be able to achieve the full measure of the cuts ordered by City Hall in October but is being more deliberate in choosing how to spend.
"We're not putting a price tag on public safety," said police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi.
Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III told The Baltimore Sun on Friday that crime cannot always be quashed with more manpower and said officers are understandably frustrated with the effect on their wallets. "Each district major [now] has a budget to operate from," he said. "If I gave them $100,000 every two weeks, they'd spend it. If I gave them $200,000, they'd spend it. Do you think those guys that are earning that money wouldn't say, 'Of course it's needed'? Of course they would. But you have to be practical.
"There isn't an unlimited pot of money. That's a reality. ... We're going to do things, moving forward, to deal with the problems we see and not have a blanket policy where I just flood the streets indiscriminately with overtime."
Across the country, police departments are facing budget cuts as cities and states struggle with declining revenues. The Chicago Police Department, for example, plans to reduce hiring by about half in an effort to save $10 million. Massachusetts State Police cut overtime and delayed hiring. Police in Phoenix, San Diego and Portland, Ore., are experiencing major reductions.
But not all cities are scaling back. In Los Angeles, despite a city budget shortfall of $400 million, the Police Department plans to add 1,000 new officers, pushing the agency to unprecedented staffing levels. Police Chief William Bratton has made a case that spending on his department returns financial dividends to the city, The Wall Street Journal reported.
And in Oakland, Calif., the police chief recently lifted restrictions on overtime for the holiday season after scaling back because of budget woes.
In Baltimore, the department has broken up several specialized units to help reduce overtime spending, which is often used by districts to fill shift vacancies. The Baltimore Sun reported in October that the marine unit, created in 1860 to patrol the waters of the harbor, and the police community services and public housing units would be disbanded.
Cherry said that while there is no direct correlation between the cutbacks and the November surge in homicides, he does not believe that it was mere coincidence.
In the Southwestern District, he said, officers have complained to him that shifts have recently been short of personnel. An officer is required to stand guard outside the mayor's home 24 hours a day; a two-man "gun car" is routinely deployed to search for armed suspects; two officers are assigned to a detail where the Southwestern, Western and Southern districts converge; and another is on desk duty. That sometimes leaves only eight cars to respond to emergency calls.
At a community meeting in October, Dixon called the Southwestern District where she lives "the worst."
Bealefeld said the presence of more police cannot stop much of the city's crime, a point also made recently by the mayor.
"With all the overtime in the world, I wouldn't have had a man on the Walgreen's parking lot or a man on Gwynns Falls Parkway at 4 in the morning when a group of thugs tried to take the man's wallet and shot him in the face," Bealefeld said.
Statistics provided by the department show that while homicides spiked in November, other crimes across the city fell, in some cases considerably. The 28-day period ending Nov. 29, the most recent for which statistics are available, showed double-digit percentage drops in nonfatal shootings and robberies over the previous four weeks, as well as declines in aggravated assaults and burglaries.
Cherry said the numbers tell only part of the story. "Tell that to the old lady who sees more gangs in her neighborhood or to my neighbor who had a burglary attempt on his house," the police union president said.
Bealefeld shared a similar sentiment during a speech last week to a group of officers who had completed a leadership program. He said residents and their children have said at recent events that they are afraid to talk to their neighbors about the city's trash problem because they are afraid of getting shot.
"We have a long way to go," he told the officers.
In discussing the budget reductions, Cherry harshly criticized Bealefeld, insisting that the commissioner should be speaking out against the cuts and advocating for the Police Department.
"I know he's speaking as an administrator, but when it comes to prioritizing budget cuts, you don't roll back on public safety and the education of our children," Cherry said. "If we get crime going in the right direction, you don't tell the mayor, 'No problem, we'll take our cuts, too.'
"I've never heard of an agency willing to say that we deserve these budget cuts. That's outrageous," Cherry said. "If he's saying it's just as important for [Public Works] to be on the street as a cop, he should step down."