Acting Baltimore Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle said Wednesday that he is bolstering the department’s patrol ranks by almost 20 percent in an effort to get more officers oton the streets, suppress crime and curb soaring overtime spending.
As the department struggles to hire more recruits, Tuggle reassigned 115 officers from other units to patrol assignments in the department’s nine districts.
“With patrol being a priority, with our crime fight being a priority, we see the need to move these personnel,” Tuggle said at a news conference with Mayor Catherine E. Pugh.
Front-line patrol officers are regularly referred to as the “backbone” of the police department, but commanders have struggled to fill shifts, forcing them to draft officers into overtime work. That costs money and leaves officers exhausted.
The reassignments come as the City Council has announced plans to more carefully scrutinize the department’s overtime spending.
Meanwhile, the pace of violence in the city has picked up recently. Since the beginning of July, 15 people have been killed on the city’s streets, and a 7-year-old girl was left fighting for her life after being shot while riding in a car last week.
Pugh called that incident “unconscionable.”
Lt. Gene Ryan, the president of the officers’ union, commended Tuggle for shifting the officers and “having the courage to make some tough decisions.”
“We’ve always advocated for beefing up patrol and having more officers in uniform,” he said. “Crime is prevented with the officers in uniform. People feel safe.”
Ryan said he expects some officers will be disappointed to leave their specialized units for the new assignments but that officers already on patrol will appreciate the extra numbers at their side.
City Councilman Brandon Scott, the chairman of the Public Safety Committee, said the police department can only achieve so much by simply moving officers from one job to another without making structural reforms that free officers to build relationships in the communities they patrol.
Right now, Scott said, patrol officers are merely “call takers; they just go from call to call to call.”
“Reassigning folks along with changing the structure with how calls and non-emergency calls are handled can lead to a better use of patrol officers,” Scott said. “Adding people is one step in the right direction.”
Scott also has called for more crime reports to be taken online or over the phone, which could free officers to carry out other tasks.
Councilman Ryan Dorsey, who has pressed the department to better explain how it is making use of its half-billion-dollar annual budget, questioned whether the reassignments will make much difference.
“Moving people around is not new,” Dorsey said. “This is pretty run-of-the-mill stuff.”
Officials say the patrol schedule, which involves officers working four 10-hour days a week, needs 1,200 or so officers to work effectively. Before the new assignments, 766 officers were assigned to patrol, though 152 of them could not be deployed because of suspensions, illnesses, vacations and military service.
Almost half of the newly assigned officers are being sent to the Northeastern District, where shootings are up since last year, and the Central District, where homicides have increased. Overall for the year in the city, homicides are down by about a quarter from 2017’s historic levels, and nonfatal shootings are down 8 percent. As of July 7, there had been 141 homicides and 299 shootings.
The reassignments bring the total number of officers assigned to patrol to 881, with 729 of them actually available to be deployed.
Pugh said she expects the department could reach the full patrol staffing level in two or three years through revitalized recruitment efforts.
Police department rosters for May showed that on some days more than 40 percent of patrol officers were working overtime shifts.
That level of overtime means officers are regularly working 15- or 16-hour days, which police and city officials say puts both them and the public at risk.
Tuggle said shifting the 115 officers would mean that each shift is only four officers short, on average, instead of 18. All of the new officers are expected to be in place by Sunday.
“It’s not a shell game,” Tuggle said. “These are bodies that will hit the streets.”
In the budget year that ended June 30, the city spent more than $47 million on overtime for police officers, far more than the $16 million budgeted. Officials have already approved the use of $21 million in extra tax revenue to make up part of the gap.
The city is auditing the police overtime after the federal investigation into the corrupt Gun Trace Task Force found that some officers regularly claimed overtime pay for hours they had not worked.
The new patrol officers are being reassigned from District Detective Units, which are being dissolved and their responsibilities given to patrol officers, and the so-called “10th District” roving force created by Tuggle’s predecessor, Darryl De Sousa. Tuggle acknowledged that moving officers to patrol would mean cutting back some of the department’s other activities.
“There’s an opportunity cost associated with these moves, obviously,” Tuggle said.
Baltimore Sun Reporters Luke Broadwater and Talia Richman contributed to this article.