“Do you read the newspaper?” Mayor Catherine Pugh asked a reporter who inquired about whether she thought her crime strategy was working. “The Sunpaper said the strategy is working. You should read the newspaper.”
We certainly agree with that last part. But in case you happened to miss the editorial she was referring to, “What do we need to do to get violence under control in Baltimore? Everything,” which ran last week after FBI statistics confirmed that this is the deadliest city in America, you should know that we did not in fact conclude that her crime fighting strategy is working. We wrote that she has the right philosophy about Baltimore crime — that it is a product of deep-seated socio-economic disparities, and that a long-term solution requires addressing them. If we ever want to see the lasting gains that cities like New York and Boston have experienced, we need to sustain a focus on providing better opportunities for employment, education and social mobility, and we need to do it for years. Her view that all city departments — not just the police — must be involved in improving public safety is the right one.
But that’s a different question altogether than whether her administration’s strategy is working to keep city residents safe today. With 17 people killed last week and at least three more on Monday, we have to conclude that it isn’t. Baltimore may have finished September with 33 fewer murders than it had suffered at the same point in 2017, but tracking better against Baltimore’s worst homicide rate in history is weak validation of the city’s efforts.
Mayor Pugh noted Monday that in Martin O’Malley’s days as mayor, the department had 3,000 or more officers, and now it is down to about 2,500, hundreds of whom are on leave or otherwise unavailable. Reducing the size of the force wasn't Mayor Pugh's idea — it occurred under former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s administration.
Mayor Pugh may have inherited the staffing shortage (and the disastrous four days on, three days off shift schedule that was written into the city’s contract with the police union back in the Anthony Batts era) but it’s up to her to fix it or find a way to make it work. The city has stepped up its recruitment efforts, but hiring events, ads on the sides of buses and such apparently aren’t cutting it. We’re barely treading water in terms of overall staffing. Moreover, the issue isn’t just how many new recruits move through the academy each year versus the number who leave. It's also about management and priorities.
A staffing report completed by the department in August as part of its compliance with the city’s federal consent decree shows more than 300 budgeted patrol positions are unfilled, leading to mandatory overtime and the attendant morale and fiscal problems that creates. The report notes that the number of budgeted positions is 17 percent more than what would be needed for patrol officers to respond to calls for service and still spend 40 percent of their time on “self-initiated activity and work with the community to problem solve neighborhood issues.”
The staffing study found a 26.6 percent vacancy rate for patrol officer positions but less than a 2 percent vacancy rate for police officers in other parts of the department. “BPD appears to give the least importance and value to patrol services when it comes to filling vacancy,” the report says. “The practice of carrying vacancies in patrol and assigning police officers to non-patrol duties has been a leadership decision that has not and does not best serve the BPD or the Baltimore community.”
That's something the department could fix. It could also follow recommendations from the report (which echo ideas City Councilman Brandon Scott has been advancing for months) to use more civilian staff to to handle administrative functions and to establish online and telephone reporting for certain minor crimes.
It doesn’t help that we don’t have a permanent police commissioner right now, but given the debacle of the first commissioner Mayor Pugh hired — Darryl De Sousa, who was forced to resign after he was indicted in federal court for failing to file tax returns — we don’t blame her for taking her time to find the right leader. We can’t afford to get this wrong. But whoever Ms. Pugh announces as the department's next leader later this month will need to move fast to establish and execute a clear strategy to reduce violent crime in the short term. Ms. Pugh is right that crime is a generational challenge in Baltimore, but while we wait for long-term solutions to take hold, we can’t let ourselves accept the city’s post-Freddie Gray levels of violence as the new normal.
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