If you call 911 to report a stolen package in Baltimore, dispatchers will soon ask you to do it over the phone or online, instead of sending a police officer to respond in person.
If you report someone having a behavioral health crisis, a social worker will be dispatched instead of the cops. Non-emergency calls and minor car accidents will trigger similar non-police responses.
The goal is to make the Baltimore Police Department more efficient amid persistent staffing shortages and rising gun violence, according to city leaders.
Police Commissioner Michael Harrison announced the new initiative Wednesday, calling it SMART policing, which stands for “strategic management and alternative response tactics.” He said the goal is decreasing violent crime by freeing up sworn officers to focus more on proactive patrols, community policing and emergency calls: “To be efficient with our ever-shrinking resources, to be effective in where we’re spending our time and what we’re asking officers to do.”
Officials said 80% of police calls for service are non-emergencies.
Mayor Brandon Scott gave the example of a stolen vehicle.
“We send a police officer — lights and sirens — to a home that we know the car isn’t at,” Scott said. “Meanwhile, we could be using the technology for things we have, like license plate readers, to actually look for the car.”
Although similar changes have been made in other cities, Scott said he expects initial blowback because some aspects of the plan are “totally new and foreign to Baltimore.”
But, he said, deploying patrol officers to deal with minor issues is not making neighborhoods safer.
“We have been operating this way since 911 was created. Nothing has really changed,” Scott said. “We have to evolve our way of thinking when it comes to policing and public safety.”
Much of the plan involves expanding existing practices, including a pilot program launched last year to dispatch social workers to behavioral health calls and the department’s telephone reporting unit, which allows people to report certain crimes — such as theft or burglary — over the phone or online.
Harrison said the expanded telephone reporting unit will be staffed mostly with civilians, part of his recent push to create more civilian positions in the department and get more sworn officers on the street. Officers recovering from injuries or illness will supplement the team.
Like many other police departments, the agency has struggled to recruit new officers and maintain staffing levels during the pandemic. Harrison said the efficiency measures will help ease some of the staffing crunch, though recruiting remains a top priority.
Meanwhile, Baltimore continues to experience a staggering level of violence and homicides. So far in 2022, the police department has recorded 125 homicides — slightly more than this time last year — which puts the city on track to exceed 300 homicides for the eighth year running.
A rash of shootings last week prompted growing outcry from residents and elected officials after two mass shootings left 10 people wounded last Tuesday — the first around lunchtime when one shooter fired an estimated 60 rounds from an assault rifle in East Baltimore. Then there was a double homicide Thursday night when a pregnant woman and her fiancé were shot outside their home. In the early hours of Friday morning, a high school junior was killed at an after-prom party.
Harrison said his SMART policing initiative will allow officers to focus on preventing and responding to violent crime, including with more visible police presence in areas where violence is most common. He said that’s something consistently asked for by residents.
“We hope to have a deterrent effect,” he said, cautioning that simply having more police officers on the street won’t address the root causes of violence.
Harrison highlighted similar changes he implemented as police chief in New Orleans before coming to Baltimore in 2019.
Back in 2017, Harrison announced a new online reporting tool for New Orleans residents that he said then would improve emergency response times because officers would spend less time on low-priority calls for service. He said the changes improved morale and productivity in the force there.
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Shortly after taking office as Baltimore police commissioner, Harrison presented a comprehensive crime plan that included new performance goals to ensure response times of 10 minutes or less for “highest priority calls where life or property is in immediate danger.”
The plan also called for officers to spend about a third of their day — when not responding to calls — engaging with the community and taking other “proactive efforts.”
The new initiative will be instrumental in making those goals a reality, Harrison said this week.
“But I want to be very clear. This is not the absence of building a case and prosecuting these crimes,” he said. “It’s only creating an alternative initial response.”
In addition to dispatching social workers and expanding telephone and online reporting, Harrison said a third-party vendor trained in accident investigation will start responding to fender benders and other minor traffic accidents with no injuries and no suspected drunk driving. He said a pilot program is expected to launch this summer.
The final piece of the initiative focuses on security alarms, which are currently a huge time suck for officers because many are set off accidentally or in error, triggering an automatic officer response. Officials said the department responded to about 28,000 false alarm calls last year alone.
Police department leaders are working with City Council members on updated legislation to address those false alarms, pushing for an ordinance that would authorize the department to discontinue an automatic response to locations that have recorded five false alarms in a calendar year. The current ordinance allows up to 15 times, which officials said is out of line with other major cities.