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Baltimore police spending: wasteful or strategic? IG report raises questions | COMMENTARY

Two conditions regarding the state of Baltimore law enforcement deserve scrutiny. The first is the egregiously high homicide rate in the city, which is on pace to equal if not surpass last year’s body count. The other is the police department’s place among the nation’s leaders in per capita spending on law enforcement.

How could both circumstances — high per capita gun violence and high per capita police budgets — exist simultaneously, for years, no less? The obvious answer is that perhaps the money being spent isn’t always going to the most effective crime-fighting and crime-prevention strategies available.

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A new report by the city’s inspector general reinforces that view. It calls into question the practice of Baltimore police officers collecting 2.5 times their typical pay rate by choosing to work overtime shifts while on “vacation.” They get paid their regular rate for the vacation time, and time and a half for the “overtime” shift. Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming notes in her report that, while this practice is perfectly legal and the city’s police union contract specifically approves of it, “it could be perceived as wasteful” — particularly by taxpayers, who’ve already shelled out more than $12 million in extra overtime over the past two fiscal years. We can confirm that a sergeant taking home more than $260,000 a year in salary, as the department’s top overtime abuser did in Fiscal 2019, is indeed “perceived as wasteful.” That is slightly more than four times the median pay of a city schoolteacher.

Another event offers a reason to be somewhat more optimistic about city law enforcement, however: the bust in Northwest Baltimore last month of what appears to be a drug-trafficking ring that was exceptionally well stocked in illegal firearms. In all, the group possessed 15 guns and materials to make another 40 untraceable “ghost guns,” which are assembled from parts and thus lacking serial numbers. Four people were arrested, and thousands of narcotic pills and other illegal drugs were seized The action was a product of a joint city-federal investigation finally revealed to the public on Wednesday.

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Was any overtime expended on this 3-month-long investigation by the Baltimore Police Department and the U.S. Homeland Security Investigations unit? We have no idea, but if it was, the cost appears justified, and it was likely shared. What’s notable here is not just that police got more ghost guns — now the preferred tool of the criminal trade — off the streets, but that the effort involved significant federal resources. The more such cooperative ventures the better. Criminal behavior does not respect geographic or political boundaries. Baltimore needs to be smarter about how it approaches public safety in every respect, from how it investigates serious crimes to how it addresses the root causes that contribute toward gun violence and how it forms partnerships to further its goals.

The Baltimore Police Department’s excessive overtime spending has been questioned before and, to his credit, Police Commissioner Michael Harrison has made some progress in reducing it. He appears to have ample room for further reduction, given the IG report, and we hope to see significant drops soon. That’s particularly important now, as groups call for defunding of the police and for justification of what can seem to be bloated budgets.

So, if we are going to measure crime in Baltimore and city police performance, let’s truly examine it. The big questions facing Mayor Brandon Scott, Police Commissioner Harrison and others are not about funding or defunding, but of the far more complex issue of whether the money is going to the most effective strategies. Are police sitting in cars cruising the streets and punching the clock, or are they deployed on endeavors that can truly impact gun violence? What activities produce the most bang for the buck? Could state and federal authorities be sharing more of the load? And where is the money currently wasted? Now, those would be some numbers that deserve to be further examined.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.

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