Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh on Wednesday defended her administration’s efforts to fill hundreds of vacant patrol positions within the city’s beleaguered Police Department, arguing the net loss of 36 officers in 2018 actually marked an improvement over past years.
The 2018 decline, the result of 184 officers being hired while 220 others left, was not an improvement over 2017, when the department saw a marginal gain in officers for the first time since 2009, with 207 hired and 204 leaving. But it was a smaller loss than in any other year since 2012, Pugh said in an interview Wednesday afternoon.
“We are working very diligently to hire people, to recruit, to create a program that we think is going to attract people across the country to the police department,” the mayor said.
The interview with Pugh followed a Baltimore Sun story published Wednesday that highlighted the net loss of officers last year as the city struggled with the highest homicide rate of any big city in the country, and after a morning gathering with reporters in which the mayor suggested The Sun’s reporting was misleading.
“Patrol is the backbone of the Police Department, so our focus is, how do we get more people in patrol? How do we right-size the department?” the mayor had said. “We’ve slowed down the attrition rate, but we know people will be leaving the Police Department.”
In her subsequent interview with The Sun in her office in City Hall, Pugh reiterated that idea, and highlighted a range of other initiatives that she said will result in net officer gains in the future.
She said applications to the department have more than doubled since her administration moved the process online in the middle of last year, although she could not say what percentage of online applicants had followed through in person and admitted that many of the 3,000 or so applications received last year have yet to be reviewed.
“We’ve got a backlog, and we’ve got to fix it,” she said.
Pugh said the need to address violent crime at times forced her to call on police officials to move officers working in the department’s recruitment office onto the streets, and that made it more difficult to process applications. However, she said she has since called on the city’s human resources department to assist in that work, and hopefully prevent any slowdowns in processing police applications in the future.
She also said a change in officer schedules that began Sunday as the result of contract negotiations with the police union already had increased the number of officers working patrol by 25 percent — though police officials could not immediately back up that claim Wednesday evening.
“I don’t want to comment unless I’m giving you facts,” said Interim Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle.
At a City Council hearing Wednesday night, police officials said the new schedule requires fewer total officers to be at full strength on the street each day, but that they still don't have enough.
Maj. Brian Hance, head of the department's recruitment section, blamed part of the problem on a staffing shortage in his own unit, which previously had as many as 14 background investigators but now has eight. He said he was getting six temporary investigators soon, and would be advertising to hire 8 more next week.
Col. Byron Conaway, who is in charge of investigations, said shootings, homicide and robbery units are operating with "bare minimum" of detectives now.
Councilman Eric Costello said the department's rate of hiring — which he calculated was less than 6 percent of applicants — was unacceptable.
“In my estimation, that is failing,” he said. “There's no greater sense of urgency than getting this department up to adequate staffing levels.”
Others, in interviews, said the net loss of officers in 2018 — in the face of an already overwhelming patrol shortage and more than 500 vacant positions — couldn’t be sugarcoated, regardless of what the administration says it has done to attract new officers.
“They need to cut the excuses. We don’t want to hear excuses about why we can’t do this, or can’t do that,” said City Councilman Brandon Scott, chair of the public safety committee. “They need to put in place things to make sure the department is operating as efficiently as possible.”
Scott said he and the City Council have taken their own steps in recent years to help address police recruiting, such as passing a 2017 resolution calling for the re-creation of a cadet program to draw city youth into the department, and supporting legislation pending now in the General Assembly that would mandate the Police Department replace more sworn officers working administrative jobs with civilians.
Pugh claimed both those moves as efforts of her administration as well, but Scott said the administration has rebuffed such changes in the past.
“It is the council that has been demanding that they civilian-ize, and have a better civilian-sworn ratio, for years, and they have not done that,” he said.
Pugh said she inherited a department with a recruitment problem — with 545 vacancies after years of hiring freezes and huge attrition — and she is trying now to dig out from that.
She said she’s working with Coppin State University and the University of Baltimore to replace the Police Department’s police academy with facilities that can better train more officers.
She said even with the doubling of applications, the city needs more to keep up with attrition, which is why she has “developed a marketing campaign” to launch in April or May to attract still more recruits.
And she said she expects Michael Harrison, the former New Orleans police superintendent who she has tapped to become the next Baltimore police commissioner, to bring his own ideas for improving recruitment and retention — which she said her administration will “give him the latitude to do.”
Pugh declined to discuss specific conversations she has had with Harrison about recruitment, but she said she expects he will work to right-size the different sections of the department — with an emphasis on patrol.
Under such a focus, Pugh said, the department will naturally “lose some of the folks through the attrition rate in some of the higher positions,” which will in turn allow the city to hire even more patrol officers — and on and on.
“That’s what you want,” she said.
Once patrol is filled, it will hopefully stay filled, she said — in part thanks to another initiative in the works.
Pugh said she is having her finance department work on ways to provide patrol officers with raises, separate from those currently outlined in the union contract, in each of their first four years working the streets, “so that they get to know their communities, engage in their neighborhoods, and become a fabric of what makes Baltimore a greater city.”
Pugh said she is hopeful for the future, and does not believe — based on conversations she has had with recent recruits — that the repeated scandals, mismanagement and leadership turnover within the police department in recent years will prevent it from reaching its recruitment goals moving forward.
“They want to be part of making the city safe,” she said of the city’s newest officers. “They want to be public servants for Baltimore, and they’ve pledged to serve the city with integrity and care.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Ian Duncan contributed to this article.