Interim Baltimore Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle discusses how he is dealing with the the staffing issues in the police department. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun video)
Facing renewed questions about his department’s ability to hire new officers, interim Baltimore Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle said Thursday that his agency is “understaffed across the board.”
“You can’t hide that,” Tuggle told reporters at police headquarters. “It’s evidence. We are literally robbing Peter to pay Paul within the agency.”
Tuggle’s comments build on a picture of the department that emerged at a City Council hearing Wednesday night. Police commanders say they’re not only struggling to field enough officers on patrol — a long-acknowledged problem — but also have too few detectives to investigate shootings, robberies and homicides. Units that battle corruption and misconduct are overburdened, and the department’s lack of background investigators is hampering its efforts to get out of the hole.
“This department went so under-invested for so many years, we’re now playing catch-up,” Tuggle said.
Mayor Catherine Pugh on Wednesday defended her administration’s efforts to fill hundreds of vacant patrol positions within the city’s beleaguered police department, arguing the net loss of 36 officers in 2018 actually marked an improvement over past years.
The department has a budget of nearly half a billion dollars annually, which some in the city say is more than enough to police the streets. In 2014, when there were 211 homicides, then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s administration cut hundreds of positions from the department.
Then, things changed. Violence surged. Homicides topped 300 in 2015 for the first time since the 1990s, and have surpassed that mark every year since. Now, police officials point to heavy caseloads for detectives and patrol officers running from call to call on the streets.
The Police Department employed a total of 2,273 officers and commanders at the end of January. It is one of the largest police departments in the nation. But new numbers reported by The Baltimore Sun on Wednesday show that the department is losing officers faster than it is hiring them, despite officials saying they need to fill hundreds of vacancies.
Last year, the department hired 184 officers, while 220 left.
In response, Tuggle announced the department would suspend performing pre-employment background investigations for other city agencies for six months so that those investigators could focus on vetting police recruits.
A spokesman for the mayor said the city’s human resources department contracts with an agency to complete background checks and is confident that there will be no disruption in hiring.
Tuggle is due to step down from the top job Monday when Michael Harrison, Mayor Catherine Pugh’s selection to lead the department, takes over as acting police commissioner.
The Baltimore Police Department is not only failing to fill vacant patrol positions in the face of steady street violence, which officials have called a priority, but suffered a net loss of 36 sworn officers in 2018 — hiring 184 officers but losing 220, data obtained by The Baltimore Sun show.
Officials have said there is one bright spot — a new schedule for patrol officers that launched Sunday and requires officers to work 8½-hour shifts five days per week, with alternating stretches of two and three days off. Before Sunday, officers had been working four 10-hour shifts per week.
Pugh said repeatedly this week that the change “added 25 percent more officers to the street.” She said she was basing that figure on numbers Tuggle had sent her.
The Police Department released data Thursday showing a more modest 12 percent boost in the number of officers deployed this week compared with last week.
Patrol officers, who are supposed to split their time between responding to calls for help and deterring crime, are regularly described as the backbone of the department. But staffing shortages have made the assignment a thankless one that drives officers to exhaustion.
The Police Department says shortening shifts and cutting the number of days off will allow commanders to stretch the same number of officers further. But in practice, the department is still so short-staffed that officials expect to continue to rely heavily on overtime.
Capt. Derek Loeffler, who addressed council members Wednesday night, said that the patrol division has just 750 officers assigned and only about 660 available for full duty.
The department has said that, at a minimum, it needs 423 officers deployed each day under the new schedule.
That translates to about 14 or 15 officers on the streets in each of the nine district at any given time. The Northeastern District, the city’s largest, has slightly more — about 22.
Councilman Eric Costello said at the hearing that those numbers were “simply not adequate.”
“I would encourage the Police Department to go back to the drawing board,” Costello said. “It is extremely challenging to do your job effectively with 14 or 15 officers.”
While the new schedule has a slight impact on the number of officers available each day, officials do expect it to cut down overtime spending.
Caroline Sturgis, the city’s deputy budget director, told the council members that the new schedule would save about $200,000 in overtime bills for each two-week pay period. That’s about $5 million a year.
The department’s total overtime spending for the current budget year, which ends June 30, was forecast to be almost $48 million before the new schedule went into effect.
The Baltimore Police Department will start using a new patrol schedule, ditching a routine for front-line officers that's blamed for overtime bills and high turnover. Deputy Commissioner Andre Bonaparte says the new schedule should give officers time to to engage in proactive policing.
The commander of the recruitment unit said his team was itself short-staffed, slowing the hiring process.
Col. Byron Conaway, who oversees detective units, said it was right that the department was focusing on boosting patrol numbers, but that his teams were working with “bare minimum” staff.
“Homicide is short. Robbery is short. Shootings is short,” Conaway said. “And right now I’m faced with putting those bodies in patrol.”
While he said he understood detectives were overworked, Costello said robbery victims in some cases were waiting days for follow-up calls from detectives and needed to be reassured someone was working on their cases.