City police redistricting 'top priority'

The Baltimore Sun

Mayor Sheila Dixon told members of the city's delegation yesterday that redrawing Police District boundary lines is a "top priority," signaling that her administration is considering the first major shuffling of police resources throughout the city in decades.

The lines, which have not changed significantly since the mid-1960s, were established to evenly allocate police resources. For years, some officials have said the current system is antiquated and fails to account for shifting population patterns and increased levels of violence.

The issue might have received a kick-start last fall after the killing of former City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. At that time, officials who represented Northeast Baltimore, the city's largest police district, complained that their communities were understaffed, and Dixon vowed to begin work on a citywide redesign of the Police Department's sector system to better match patrol resources with needs.

At a meeting with city legislators in Annapolis yesterday, Dixon said that some areas of Baltimore include a large number of empty buildings and might be over-represented by police, while others had grown in population and might be under-represented.

Redrawing district lines would not affect units such as homicide and the Violent Crimes Impact Division, which already have flexibility to deploy across the city. But the change would have ramifications for neighborhood patrols and the agency's response to the tens of thousands of 911 calls police receive annually.

Sheryl Goldstein, director of the mayor's office on criminal justice, who has been charged with overseeing the effort, said the process will be complicated and could consume a significant amount of time - a redistricting in Baltimore County took two years. But she said officials will seek input from the community.

In 2005, the City Council introduced a bill requiring the police commissioner to prepare a redistricting plan after each mayoral election that would be submitted to the council for approval.

The Police Department opposed the bill, which eventually failed, in part because police wanted to maintain the flexibility to make changes at their discretion. But in a letter to the council, Errol L. Dutton, the department's then-deputy commissioner in charge of administration, said a recent evaluation of redistricting data revealed that the current boundaries were "nearly optimal."

"An analysis of [911] calls for the last several years by district reveals a substantially equal distribution of calls for service for each district," Dutton wrote.

A report on 911 call volume for 2004 - prepared for Councilman Robert W. Curran, a lead sponsor of the bill - showed that calls varied greatly by sector, though it did not take into account the type of call or the time it takes to handle those calls. One sector in the Eastern District received more than 66,000 calls that year, while three of the Southern District's four sectors were among the lowest in the city with about 27,000 calls each.

The department undertook a review of the boundaries in 2000 as well after scaling back an ambitious plan that doubled up officers in every patrol car, though it is unclear what if any changes were made.

Robert Cherry, president of the city police union, said the review is long overdue. He said patrol officers have a wealth of knowledge of where they are most needed and should be part of the process.

He noted the department's "Tri-District Initiative," in which police share information and resources in the area where the Southwestern, Western and Southern districts meet.

"If we're going to look for new and innovative ways to attack the criminal element, all options should be on the table," Cherry said. "We should be willing to find out what's working and what's not."

Baltimore Sun reporter Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.

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