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Crime

Baltimore County’s executive has met with police at roll calls in recent weeks. What have officers told him?

Baltimore County’s top official has been meeting with rank-and-file police officers at roll calls in recent weeks, soliciting feedback from the police force just weeks before voters cast ballots for his potential reelection.

County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. told The Baltimore Sun that the meetings — four roll call visits and six roundtables this September with police officers, sergeants and corporals — are part of an effort to hear from staff across county government agencies as pandemic restrictions have eased and allowed for more in-person connection.

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But he also acknowledged the last few years have been especially difficult nationwide for public safety personnel and led to occasional “tension” between department leadership and officers. Locally, that tension manifested in May in a rare no-confidence vote in police Chief Melissa Hyatt by the union representing county police officers.

Olszewski stood behind his chief at the time, saying he “absolutely” didn’t think there was a need for leadership change and declaring himself “fully supportive” of Hyatt, who became the department’s first female chief in 2019 after Olszewski nominated her for the job.

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Asked last week whether he would seek to retain her as chief should he win reelection in November, Olszewski called it “premature” to have conversations about who his chief would be prior to Election Day. Hyatt’s contract expires in early December and a renewed contract would require county council approval.

“My focus right now is doing the job in front of me,” Olszewski said in an interview with The Sun. “Should I be fortunate enough to be reelected, I plan to do a thorough review of each and every agency and determine the appropriate leadership.”

The county executive declined to discuss specific concerns or questions he heard from officers about Hyatt’s leadership, but said officers conveyed “general and specific concerns” about department leadership that his team would follow up on, in conversation or actions.

“We envision this to be iterative,” Olszewski said. “This isn’t like a ‘we check in [once] and that’s the end of it.’ Anytime we hear concerns, whether it’s the public or employees, we want to run them down and make sure that we’re the best version of ourselves.”

Olszewski’s challenger in November’s election is former Delegate Pat McDonough, a Republican, who has said he would fire Hyatt and pull back some police reforms.

Olszewski said he’d heard other concerns unrelated to leadership from officers, including:

  • Desire for a more robust take-home patrol car program that would expand upon the $1.3 million, 20-car pilot the department launched in this year’s budget;
  • Questions about the potential for increasing the number of carryover vacation days allowed for officers, as staffing woes have led to more overtime shifts and difficulty using leave;
  • Frustration around a crossing guard shortage that has led to police being pulled off patrol and reducing resources available for police responses; and
  • Equipment or facility issues, such as the aging precinct in Essex (the budget included funding for a feasibility study for a replacement facility), a need for additional training facilities or the equipment belts outfitted to officers that create problems.

Olszewski described those items as short-term concerns, saying his team is looking at the potential for additional carryover daysand attempting to hire crossing guards to fill vacancies. It already has set aside funding for some facility upgrades.

Longer term conversations sparked by the talks with officers involve, for example, retiree health care, Olszewski said. He described a “significant divide” in benefits for officers who were hired prior to 2007 and those hired afterward.

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The difference in retirement benefits was addressed earlier this year when county government restarted what’s known as a Deferred Retirement Option Program, or DROP, where employees who stay past their retirement eligibility receive an “allowance” of retirement benefits with interest. Addressing the health benefits difference is a lingering, complicated issue, he said.

Hyatt’s administration also has focused on collecting feedback from police, said Joy Stewart, the department’s director of public affairs.

Officers, Stewart said, often cite concerns with aging or outdated equipment and the training facility. But positive feedback includes technology and equipment upgrades and the agency’s focus on officer wellness.

A 100-plus-member workgroup focused on retention has brainstormed ideas such as revising the department’s facial hair policy and purchasing load-bearing vests to carry equipment, Stewart said. Plus, leadership has an “intense focus” on the crossing guard issue, is working to replace “outdated” precincts in Wilkens and Essex, and is forming a group to focus on improving officer scheduling, she added.

When the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 4, which represents county officers, issued its lack of confidence vote in Hyatt, it offered reasons ranging from what it called a “failure” to address crime in the county to a refusal to take questions from the rank-and-file and an unwillingness to work directly with FOP leadership.

Hyatt portrayed the vote as part of a push from a “small group” of critics, while Olszewski argued Hyatt’s reform initiatives may have sparked dissatisfaction from officers.

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The union’s president, Dave Folderauer, said this week he’s pleased the county executive is reaching out to officers to hear concerns and what’s important to them, even if he wished conversations had taken place sooner.

“The feedback I’ve gotten from the membership has been positive and they believe he’s been genuine in his conversations with them,” Folderauer said.

The union president declined to discuss specific outcomes he hoped to see from the informal meetings, saying: “Hearing from his police officers is more important than hearing from the labor organization leadership.”

Olszewski said he’d also had all-staff meetings with county agencies including the Department of Aging, Department of Planning and Department of Recreation and Parks.

“There are always opportunities to improve,” Olszewski said, “but the only way that you’re ever going to make improvements, both in terms of how you lead and specific policies and programs, is to actually take the time and get the feedback.”


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