A “staffing crisis” and mounting public pressure to reduce surging violence in Baltimore threaten the “significant progress” the city’s police department has made since a federal consent decree was reached five years ago, the federal judge overseeing the process warned Thursday.
As bloodshed in Baltimore has accelerated in recent months, with more shootings and homicides compared to the same time last year, Judge James K. Bredar urged city officials to “stay the course” and pushed back against claims that police reforms will inhibit officers from effectively fighting crime, calling the work toward the dual goals a “stress test” for the department.
“The consent decree does not restrict legitimate law-enforcement activity. It does not prohibit vigorous enforcement action,” Bredar said. “But the decree does limit and regulate how police work is done ... [and] establishes guardrails within which the city and the police department must operate.”
The department faces a pressing challenge of a dearth of officers, with a net loss of 114 so far this year. The department is down a total of nearly 400 officers needed to fully carry out reforms, as outlined by a staffing plan required by the consent decree.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison expressed concerns about the shortage but emphasized the department’s efforts to attract new officers and make the work more efficient.
“We need people to be able to patrol, be visible, to prevent crime, apprehend people who commit crime —that’s always a challenge. While we are working to bring more people on ... we’re working to reduce the workload of the officers who are already here,” Harrison said.
To help ease the staffing shortage, the department announced on Thursday a slew of new pay incentives, including a $5,000 signing bonus for new recruits. Additionally, new hires who live in the city can earn up to $12,000 in housing assistance for the first year of full-time employment. Officers also can receive an additional $5,000 per year toward student loans, and another $5,000 for referrals for new recruits who complete the academy.
“We’re hoping its a game-changer,” said Eric Melancon, the deputy commissioner who oversees the department’s compliance bureau, outside the courthouse Thursday.
But Baltimore Police union leaders said that the incentives do not address the issue of attrition.
“There is no doubt that BPD needs to increase hiring, but the more immediate issue that needs to be resolved is the retention of officers who are already here and trained,” said Sgt. Mike Mancuso, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, in a statement.
“The city does not have the luxury of waiting 18 to 24 months for new officers to be available to fight crime,” Mancuso said.
The hiring bonuses are among the latest efforts by Baltimore Police to woo new recruits. Last year, the department announced it was raising the starting salary for new officers from $55,000 per year to $60,000, making Baltimore the highest-paying major law enforcement agency in the state for new recruits. The department also is among the first law enforcement agencies in the nation to hire civilians to investigate low-level crimes, internal affairs complaints and cold cases.
Melancon said at Thursday’s hearing that the agency has received 800 applications for 35 positions.
Despite the department’s progress, several observers said the department has a long road ahead.
“I’m hesitant to say they are on track because of the staffing issue,” said Ray Kelly, who heads the Citizens Policing Project, an organization based in West Baltimore. Kelly also previously served on the monitoring team, which includes law and policing experts who are helping to implement reforms.
“We are still 400 officers short. When will we actually see results?” he asked about the reforms.
When the consent decree was first reached, Kelly said he recalled that many believed the process would take five to seven years.
“What are we talking about now?” he said. “We don’t want to pay for this forever.”
Heather Warnken, executive director of the University of Baltimore Law School’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform, who also sat in on Thursday’s hearing, said she found the discussion of progress “incredibly frustrating.”
She said there is an “ongoing and painful disconnect between the optimistic tone and progress discussed in that courtroom and the experiences of those impacted by violence,” especially Black victims of gun violence.
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Warnken led research for a recently released report that found Baltimore Police regularly treated Black gun violence victims as criminal suspects rather than victims in need of trauma care and other support services.
“If we are serious about strengthening community trust and reducing violence, we need a more honest reckoning with what’s still going terribly wrong. It is essential for both effective implementation of reforms, and BPD’s accountability to real change,” Warnken said.
At Thursday’s hearing, department officials cited improvements in reform areas, such as internal investigations and technology, which have been neglected and has long been the focus of earlier consent decree hearings.
Melancon said the department is moving forward with a mobile-based field reporting program that allows officers to complete police reports on their cellphones, rather than requiring them to head back to the station at the end of their shift.
Internal affairs also was cited regularly early on in the consent decree process because of the large backlog of cases, a lack of trained investigators, poor communication with the public and the criticism that many people who made complaints about officers never received any follow-up.
Deputy Commissioner Brian Nadeau, who oversees the Public Integrity Bureau, which includes internal affairs, said at the hearing that the office does not receive those types of complaints anymore. The monitoring team, which includes law and policing experts that are helping to implement reforms, is expected to issue a review later this month examining 60 cases.
“We’ve seen significant improvements” including in the quality of the cases, said Kenneth Thompson, who heads the monitoring team.