Baltimore City Police Commissioner Michael Harrison speaks with reporters ahead of the graduating ceremony for the 29 new officers set to graduate Friday. (Jessica Anderson / Baltimore Sun video)

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison welcomed a new academy class of city police officers Friday.

“Today is about the growth, maturity, the evolution of a police department and a city,” Harrison told the group of 26 city police officers and three school police officers at a ceremony at the city police headquarters downtown. The graduation was the first for Harrison as Baltimore’s top cop after he was officially sworn in last month.

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He and the new officers join the force after an especially turbulent time when the department is beginning implementation of widespread reforms required by a federal civil rights consent decree, when violent crime remains at high levels, including more than 300 homicides a year, and when deep distrust of police persists after a federal corruption case involving at least eight Gun Trace Task Force Police officers.

Police academy graduates stand during a ceremony Friday at the city police headquarters downtown.
Police academy graduates stand during a ceremony Friday at the city police headquarters downtown. (Jessica Anderson / Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore is “a police department that the country is watching,” he said.

At a time when departments across the country are struggling to recruit officers, Harrison said, “I’m also proud … that you stepped up and said not only is that what I want to do, is that what I should do, but this is what I’m called to do.”

The department has also been struggling to hire and retain officers to counteract a shortage in critical areas, such as patrol. A staffing study last year estimated that there were 800 patrol positions filled — about 300 fewer than budgeted, which has contributed to hefty overtime expenses, which the department is expected to surpass again this year. The department expects to spend a total of $48.63 million by June 30, up from $47.2 million.

Baltimore City Council concerned by police overtime spending, which is expected to be $48.63M for fiscal year

The Baltimore Police Department is again expected to spend millions of dollars on overtime this year, but Commissioner Michael Harrison has pledged increased oversight to curb costs.

The city has begun a number of initiatives in hopes of increasing the ranks, including putting the application process online this summer and creating a fitness camp to help those who are otherwise qualified.

The latest class of 29 officers includes 13 white men, eight African American men, three African American women, and five Hispanic men. Five are city residents.

Jahlik Mathis, 28, a former corrections officer from Philadelphia, said he chose to come to Baltimore because he felt the need was greatest in Baltimore and where he could make the biggest positive impact.

“I grew up in not the best neighborhoods myself so I know what it’s like. I know how the people feel, how the children feel to be able to grow up and feel like they don’t have much, or many options,” he said.

Mathis said he’s looking forward to working for Harrison, whom he listened speak at a community meeting when Harrison first arrived in Baltimore.

“He seems very passionate about the department and the job,” Mathis said.

So far this year, the police department has hired 50 officers, while 40 have left the department.

Counties are hiring away Baltimore police officers — undercutting city efforts to boost force

As law enforcement agencies throughout the Baltimore region and across the country struggle to find qualified recruits, they are hiring certified, trained officers away from other agencies. And the Baltimore Police Department is a prime target.

Attrition has been consistent for the past 10 years, but applications declined beginning in 2014, city officials said at a recent consent decree hearing. The department has set a goal to hire 25 officers per month, with at least half African American and 33% women.

Recruitment challenges persists as the department’s major in charge of the recruitment unit, Brian Hance, was recently suspended with pay, but a spokesman has declined to provide additional details.

In October, a police official told City Council members about a probe into financial misconduct tied to recruitment in Puerto Rico, where the Police Department has sought to hire Spanish-speaking officers. The department has not provided additional information about the status of that investigation.

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At the graduation, Harrison told the new officers they will lead the department through it’s next chapter.

“We are on the way to becoming what Baltimore Police Department should have always been and what it was always meant to be,” Harrison said, adding that he envisions a day when “we will be the policing leaders in this country.”

Harrison closed his speech by telling the officers, “Always remember right is right even when nobody is doing it and wrong is wrong even when everybody is doing it.”

Baltimore Police Department requests extension to double training academy staff

The Baltimore Police Department continues to work to bolster its training academy staff, and is requesting a three-week extension within the consent decree schedule to double its personnel.

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