Police union: Baltimore at 'tipping point' because of too few cops on streets

Union: Baltimore Police 'at the tipping point of being unable to protect' the city

The Baltimore Police Department routinely deploys too few patrol officers to be effective and has reached a "tipping point of being unable to protect the city and its citizens" as a result, according to the union that represents rank-and-file officers.

The understaffing of patrol shifts has gotten so bad, the president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, Gene Ryan, said Wednesday, that officers patrolling neighborhoods all across Baltimore are "only able to respond to calls for service, with no time left for proactive policing of any nature."

"This is a dire situation in terms of the operational safety of our officers and can no longer be tolerated," Ryan said.

Ryan's comments come after a department report on "Community Policing" showed the number of neighborhood patrol officers has declined in the last year, even though top police officials have said such deployments are a priority. They also come while the union and the city are involved in contentious contract negotiations.

T.J. Smith, a police spokesman, declined to comment on patrol staffing Wednesday, but cited the contract negotiations earlier this week, saying police officials "certainly recognize the staffing challenges that exist and are working as hard and as fast as we can to alleviate some of those problems."

A sticking point in the negotiations is a provision agreed to in the last round of negotiations with the union, under then-Commissioner Anthony W. Batts, that set a schedule of four 10-hour shifts per week for patrol officers.

The city claimed the shift change would reduce overtime. Instead, overtime is up, and the city now wants out of the deal, saying the shift structure has prevented Police Commissioner Kevin Davis from moving patrol officers onto a schedule that works.

Ryan said the shift structure is less to blame for the department's failure to fill patrol shifts than the redeployments of large numbers of officers to new units — including the community collaboration unit — and the department's failure to attract, hire and retain enough officers under Davis.

"There's not enough people on the street," he said. "They're working the patrol shifts to death."

Ryan said officers tired after their own 10-hour shifts are routinely forced to work costly overtime shifts just so the department can reach patrol levels "far lower than any professional law enforcement organization would ever consider even remotely adequate."

Sometimes shifts just go half-filled, he said. Supervision of younger officers also has fallen off.

Ryan said he wants Mayor Catherine E. Pugh and members of the City Council to require Davis to "take swift action" to improve the situation for patrol officers before the city is unable to "provide basic police protection to its citizens."

Pugh's office did not respond to a request for comment.

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said he also has concerns about staffing levels, and gets police deployment numbers on a regular basis showing fewer officers on the streets than he has seen in the past.

He said he plans to address the issue — as well as retention and recruitment — by calling police and union officials before the council later this month. But the council's power to control police labor disputes is limited, he said, and the union should consider relinquishing more power over the shift schedule if it wants to see an improvement.

"The FOP has to sit down with the commissioner and give up some of this stuff, because the police commissioner should have control over scheduling," Young said.

Councilman Brandon Scott, chair of the public safety committee, said the situation the city finds itself in is a "byproduct of a bad decision" — the one to move to the 10-hour shifts — and not of the Police Department or the union "deliberately doing things to hurt patrol."

Both Scott and Ryan noted that the agreement originally reached to institute the 10-hour shifts was based on the city's having 1,250 officers working patrol — far more than it has after a wave of departures following the unrest related to the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in 2015. That has created problems.

According to the "Community Policing" report the Police Department put out last week, it had 999 officers actively working patrol as of last month — about 100 fewer than the year before and many fewer than in years past.

Smith earlier this week blamed the decline in part on the department having to redeploy officers to address violent crime, including a quadrupling of its number of robbery detectives.

Ryan said Wednesday that there were really only 700 officers actively working patrol, citing a Dec. 14 department staffing report. He also said the department did not quadruple its number of robbery detectives, as Smith claimed, but less than doubled that staff, from 24 detectives to 45.

Ryan accused the department of releasing "inaccurate propaganda," saying "enough is enough."

The clash between the union and the department, and the department's struggles to find a patrol strategy that works, are playing out at a particularly inopportune time for the city.

City officials continue to negotiate police reforms with the U.S. Department of Justice, after the federal agency last summer found a pattern of discriminatory policing by the police department and stressed the need to repair community relationships.

And Baltimore just finished its second-deadliest year per capita in 2016, with 318 homicides. That followed a per-capita record 344 homicides in 2015.

Ryan said crime has risen in part because patrol officers are constantly going between calls and not looking into suspicious activity, talking to residents about incidents in their neighborhoods, or simply maintaining a presence on blocks known for violence.

He said the "criminal element of our community is fully aware that our low staffing numbers make us inefficient."

Police officials have said they are trying to recruit more officers, but it is a challenge. Ryan said if something doesn't change in patrol, Davis should be worried about losing the officers who are already on the force and patrolling Baltimore's streets each day.

"The rank and file feel as though they are severely understaffed and under attack from all sides, including from within the command ranks of the BPD," Ryan wrote. "Currently there are upwards of 200-300 officers that could retire in 2017 and it is no secret that the BPD has become a training ground for police recruits intent on leaving for better paying agencies that put greater importance on operational safety and employee support."

krector@baltsun.com

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