City policing challenge

February 17, 1992

Like many other American cities -- and neighboring Baltimore County -- Baltimore City is shifting to community policing. This is a law-enforcement fad these days because societal changes have made crime-fighting far more complex. If police officers become problem-solvers in neighborhoods, the theory goes, crime will drop, people will feel more secure and content and the incumbent politicians will have fewer complaints and headaches.

Community policing is a concept that can be -- and is -- implemented in varying ways. The Baltimore department would flatten its command hierarchy so there are a minimum of supervisory and management levels between the police commissioner and officers assigned to field-service delivery in the city's neighborhoods.

The nine current police districts would be redrawn. Their commanders would be given more freedom to implement their own ideas to address their area's problems. The hopelessly overused 911 system would be revamped to assure priority complaints get proper attention.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Commissioner Edward V. Woods estimate five years will be needed to fully implement the community policing philosophy. It may take longer. After all, the police department, with a budget of more than $181 million, is comparable to a major corporation.

This is the first reorganization of the city police department since the 1960s, when Donald D. Pomerleau remade it. This one will be no easier than the earlier effort, if we are to believe the findings of a Silver Spring consulting firm which assessed the department's current conditions.

Gaffigan and Associates, the consultants, found police officers "with a strong sense that they are neglected by the organization and that they are not respected by the community." The result is mutual antagonism in the ranks: Officers question their sergeants' ability to lead and motivate; district commanders feel undermined because "their recommendations for discipline are commonly reversed by their supervisors, without reason."

This bad atmosphere, the consultants believe, explains the department's "major sick leave problem." The average officer uses 16 days of sick leave a year. The problem does not seem to go away even though the department's new contract with the Fraternal Order of Police provides extra vacation days for officers who go without sick days for six months or more.

The city police department operates in less than enviable circumstances. It shares the municipal government's fiscal constraints. Its recruiting pool is limited by the stunning fact that 95 percent of new applicants have to be rejected because they cannot complete tests or have had prior brushes with the law. Community policing will be a flop if these serious morale and personnel problems are not addressed head-on.

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