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Amid recruitment woes and unfit prospects, Baltimore police turn to 'boot camp' to train officers

A "boot camp" for new recruits and active officers helps them get in shape in order to pass the physical requirements to become a cop. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)

For Delores Bell, the situps were the most challenging.

As a Baltimore police recruit, she had to complete 29 in one minute, along with 10 pushups in a minute and a 1.5-mile run in under 16 minutes, 28 seconds to pass the fitness test.

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While she passed, the 26-year-old social worker from Baltimore said she wants to get in better shape before joining the force. She’s taking advantage of a new “Fit to Serve” boot camp, which the city launched as a pilot program this summer.

It is one of several initiatives Mayor Catherine Pugh’s administration is rolling out to attract more recruits, including local, minority and female candidates.

“I knew I wanted to pass, so I had to put in the work,” Bell said after a recent boot camp, where she and several officers completed rounds of situps, pushups and footwork drills.

The class meets three times a week at the police academy and is open to both recruits and sworn officers. Bell said she now regularly completes several hundred situps during the hourlong workout. She has lost 18 pounds since the classes began and has been thinking differently about her diet, choosing salads over drive-through meals. Through the workouts, she already has met officers and even the sergeant in charge of recruitment.

The fitness requirement is a “huge barrier” for many recruits, said Major Brian Hance, who heads the department’s recruitment section. In 2017, 20 percent of applicants failed the fitness test on their first try, including 55 percent of women, he said.

Rather than turn away candidates who can’t pass the fitness test, “we want to work with them,” Hance said. “There’s a lot of good people out here.”

Hance said the classes also help nurture new relationships among prospective and current officers.

Baltimore Police, like many large law enforcement agencies around the country, has struggled to fill its ranks in recent years. Baltimore saw a significant increase in officer departures after the 2015 unrest and the arrest of six officers in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray.

In 2015, the department hired 91 officers and lost 249, for a net loss of 158. In 2016, it hired 111 and lost 225, for a net loss of 114. In 2017, 203 officers left the department and 207 were hired, for a net gain of four officers.

The department has about 500 fewer sworn officers than it did in 2012, officials said.

A report by the department and the Police Foundation released last week found that the department has failed to prioritize patrol positions, leaving a 26.6 percent vacancy rate — significantly higher than other areas within the department.

The department has had to rely on overtime to make sure enough officers are on duty, creating perennial problems with soaring overtime costs. The department spent $47.2 million on overtime in the last fiscal year, though only $16 million was budgeted.

To combat the problem, Pugh asked the Bloomberg Philanthropies-funded “Innovation Team” to figure out how to recruit more police officers and retain them. The team is headed by Dan Hymowitz, who previously served as a senior adviser at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.

“The first issue that the mayor has asked my team to work on is thinking about police recruitment and hiring, and how we can bring in the next generation of officers into the BPD,” Hymowitz said.

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The group started looking at different steps in the hiring process to determine what was eliminating candidates. While the application process includes a background check and a physical, Hymowitz said the fitness test is one place where city officials saw solutions.

The boot camp idea came from looking at other police departments, and was an idea used in Los Angeles.

“This is something you can get better at. You can train to pass the physical agility test,” he said.

So far, half of the 10 participants in the boot camps have passed their fitness test and they are all women, he said.

The innovation team has begun a number of other initiatives to beef up the department’s ranks, including an online application.

“We’re seeing a huge increase in the number of applications to the department — a four-fold increase over the last two and a half months as the result of various technology improvements, including the introduction of an online application,” Hymowitz said.

The department previously received an average of 19 applications a week. But soon after the launch of the online process, the department saw a spike of 89 applications. Officials said the increased number of applications continues, which means more candidates overall.

“That creates a great pool of individuals for us to select from, and allows us to make sure we get the quality officers that we want,” Pugh said.

Another initiative announced last week was the evaluation of candidates through the National Testing Network’s “Frontline National” exam, which is used by the San Francisco and Washington police departments, and will replace the decades-old civil service exam.

Hymowitz said the new exam will better evaluate future officers’ critical thinking, ethics and communication skills. He gave one example of a video in the test in which officers approach a woman in distress, who has a knife to her throat, and the applicants are asked how they would respond to the call.

The test will not only be more efficient, he said, but will help the police department find candidates with “traits that are needed for constitutional community-focused policing.”

The police department is operating under a court-ordered consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department after a review found a pattern of unconstitutional policing in the city.

Pugh said many residents have expressed the need for more visibility of police in their communities.

“What people want is police officers who are going to be more engaging at the community level, who become the fabric of their communities,” she said in an interview.

Her administration also is looking for a marketing firm to create a campaign to attract “millennial, local, minority, female, and ‘ideal’ candidates.”

Hymowitz said Chicago and other cities have had success with similar campaigns, and that the city received a number of proposals, and hopes to launch a campaign later this year.

Pugh, who is an avid runner herself, said she would like to see the fitness boot camp expanded to draw more existing city officers.

“We want to make sure our police officers are fit and healthy, both physically, psychologically and otherwise,” she said.

At a recent boot camp class, Hance sat with two other officers and Bell, completing situps as trainer Monte Sanders stood over the group counting repetitions. Sanders, who had partnered with the police department in the past, has most famously helped train Ray Lewis and other Ravens players.

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“For me, this is the most important gig. To me, officers need it more than a football team,” Sanders said.

Police officers must be in shape, he said, not just because of the physical demands of the job, but the mental toll, which exercise can help ease.

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