Baltimore police officials rejected the notion yesterday that a tightened budget drove a recent crime spike, telling City Council members that they saved millions from the department's overtime budget while achieving a 20-year low in homicides last year by spending more strategically and increasing the department's staffing.
Deputy Commissioner Deborah Owens said at a council hearing that overtime spending dropped from $35 million in 2006 to $21 million last year, a period that saw homicides tumble from 276 to 234. One of the keys to those declines was that the department was no longer losing more officers than it recruited, Owens said, adding that the agency is fully staffed for the first time in years.
"Fewer vacancies means more officers on the streets and less need for overtime spending," Owens said.
Earlier in the day, Mayor Sheila Dixon acknowledged a "couple of rough days" at the beginning of this year.
"But it is not related to the overtime. It is related to the senseless acts that are being committed in this community," she said.
Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake and Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young said last night that they were skeptical that the department can keep up a high level of enforcement while scaling back on overtime. Rawlings-Blake said the department was arresting fewer people and clearing fewer cases.
Young called last year's celebrated low in homicides a fluke: "We just got lucky last year."
At a council budget hearing in May, Young asked police to properly budget overtime spending and "be responsible," in part to fund programs for youth.
"We don't want to handcuff police in doing their jobs, but we want to make sure the overtime is responsible and doing what it needs to do," Young said, according to a video of the hearing provided by the mayor's office.
Councilman Nicholas D'Adamo said yesterday that council members "can't have it both ways" and said the department has fared well in the face of tough economic times.
Homicides are up 25 percent this year, though total crime and nonfatal shootings are down. And Baltimore is well below the pace of killings it has seen in most recent years. As of March 9, total crime was down 14 percent, with significant reductions in violent crime and property crime.
Owens and Col. John Skinner, chief of the patrol division, noted that the department had staved off a burst of violence to start the year, in part by flooding the city's east side with more than 150 officers. Rawlings-Blake said that proved her point that more officers can curb crime, but Owens said the department's long-term results are more important.
"We've shown that we can manage our overtime budget and still have a reduction in crime," she said. "And that's a fact."