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

Like other law enforcement agencies in the state and across the country, the Harford County Sheriff’s Office struggles now to find qualified candidates.

It used to be that each time it sought applicants to fill deputy positions, it would get so many responses that it would fill up an academy class, line up alternates and put others on a waiting list. But for the academy class it just launched, it only managed to find 15 qualified candidates to fill 15 vacancies, said Cristie Hopkins, an agency spokeswoman.

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“The amount of people applying for jobs in public safety is dwindling,” Hopkins said.

To help keep up with attrition and keep its ranks filled, the sheriff’s office — like many other agencies in the region — goes beyond training new recruits to seek “lateral” transfers from other local police departments, who still must go through background checks but are already certified in the state and don’t need to go through the academy. Such officers “save the agency time and money,” Hopkins said.

Of course, that comes at the expense of the agency losing the officers — as the Baltimore Police Department can attest.

Since 2015, the Harford County Sheriff’s Office has made a dozen lateral hires from the city police. And they are far from alone.

The Baltimore County Police Department, which recently has seen up to a 50 percent drop in applicants, has made 10 hires from the city department in just the last two years, it said.

The Howard County Police Department recently hired three officers from the city force. The Carroll County Sheriff’s Office has hired Baltimore officers in the past. And the Anne Arundel County Police Department said it “absolutely” makes lateral hires from the city, but didn’t have numbers available.

“Laterals in general are great because they save the county time and money when it comes to training. We are able to get officers trained and on the street relatively quickly compared to an entry-level employee. They also bring prior law enforcement experience with them,” said Sgt. Jacklyn Davis, an Anne Arundel police spokeswoman. “That's why almost all Maryland law enforcement agencies recruit lateral officers.”

As The Baltimore Sun recently reported, the Baltimore Police suffered a net loss of 36 officers in 2018, despite dire warnings from city officials like Mayor Catherine Pugh that there are already hundreds of vacant positions that must be filled and promises to prioritize recruitment.

The loss in 2018 was the result of the department hiring 184 new officers, but losing 220 others.

Attrition has long been a problem for the Baltimore Police, but has been compounded in recent years by a series of scandals that have rocked the force — including the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered in police custody in 2015, the unrest and rioting that followed, the charging and failed prosecution of six officers in the case, the Justice Department’s scathing report finding a pattern of discriminatory and unconstitutional practices, a federal consent decree mandating reforms, and the convictions of a team of Gun Trace Task Force detectives on federal racketeering charges.

Police union officials and others say city officers are demoralized, overworked and underpaid given the unique demands of the job in the city.

And they say all of that makes lateral moves to other departments in the region more attractive — especially given that those agencies handle far less violent crime and offer comparable pay to the city, which starts officers at about $52,000 a year.

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