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Baltimore needs a sustainable plan for stopping violence

We don’t know whether Police Commissioner Kevin Davis is right that flooding the streets with officers for the last week — instituting mandatory 12-hour shifts, canceling leave and emptying out non-patrol posts to put more cops on the beat — was responsible for a relatively quiet stretch in Baltimore’s deadliest year. But for residents terrorized, wearied or just numb from the violence, it was something. It was a sign that we have not simply shrugged our shoulders and given up on the fight.

But it was also unsustainable. The police department has not provided an estimate of the initiative’s cost, but for an agency perennially blowing past its overtime budget, this is not a viable solution for the long term. Nor can the department’s officers keep up such a pace indefinitely. As Mr. Davis has pointed out, the department has about 500 fewer officers than it did as recently as five years ago. Those who remain can’t shoulder the burden of omnipresence entirely on their own.

It’s easy to blame former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake for budget cuts that reduced the department’s authorized strength from what it was when the city’s murder rate hit modern lows. But before we get into a conversation about how Mayor Catherine Pugh can find the money to restore the department’s numbers, it needs to show it would actually be capable of filling the new slots.

Recruitment was abysmal in the immediate aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death, and attrition increased. Things have stabilized since then, but the department needs to show it can consistently bring more people through the police academy than retire or leave for other jobs elsewhere before authorizing more positions even becomes an issue.

The other thing that needs to happen is for the department to ditch its new four-day, 10-hour weekly shift schedule. There simply aren’t enough officers to make it work, and that has contributed to the overtime problem. It’s enshrined in the department’s collective bargaining agreement — an unusual arrangement and a mistake by the previous mayor and police commissioner — and it’s become a sticking point in negotiations with the union.

Next time the issue comes up at the bargaining table, the department should read this quote from Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police President Lt. Gene Ryan: "The mandatory overtime is wearing people out, and that in and of itself is a safety issue. We are so understaffed they are running from call to call to call. They don't have time to get to know people on their posts." His union has the power to ameliorate that problem by giving the commissioner the power to set shift schedules in a way that promotes the safety of officers and the public.

All other considerations aside, it’s not clear that simply showing a greater uniformed presence in the community is the most effective way to combat violent crime. It may be reassuring to residents to see officers on the streets, and it’s possible that their presence may discourage or at least delay criminal activity. But it wasn’t street patrols that drove Baltimore’s homicides to under 200 six years ago.

People like the idea of police getting out of their cars, walking the beat and interacting with the community. We need that. But we need specialized units, too. We need homicide detectives investigating cases and building the evidence necessary to arrest the relative few who are responsible for most of Baltimore’s violence, and we need the state’s attorney’s office to win convictions that carry hefty sentences. We need internal affairs officers rooting out corruption in the ranks. We need narcotics squads disrupting major drug rings. And we need officers to work in sustained, hand-in-glove partnerships with federal and state agencies to engage in close supervision of those known to be at risk of perpetrating violence or becoming victims of it. Pulling officers out of those jobs (to the extent they’re properly staffed in the first place) to create a show of force on the streets arguably might help for a short time, but it robs our future ability to put the bad guys behind bars for good.

Commissioner Davis has gotten a little salty lately in the language he uses to describe the crime fight in Baltimore, peppering his comments with an assortment of expletives. We appreciate that passion and the sense of urgency that led to the patrol surge. Now we need to see that channeled into a sustainable solution.

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