Cops in the Hood: Can a poor city do it? Baltimore police have manpower, money problems

July 26, 1992|By David Simon | David Simon,Staff Writer

It's been more than a year since the Baltimore Police Department declared that it would transform itself "from top to bottom" into a community-oriented agency, a department that didn't just fight crime, but helped to solve the problems of neighborhoods.

So far, exactly four patrol officers have been so transformed.

As for the rest of the 2,800-officer department, the future remains uncertain.

Studies are still under way, committees are still meeting, and department officials still say they are committed to changing the way Baltimore is policed.

But many in the department -- along with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke -- are openly acknowledging that the agency may not have the money or manpower to launch a labor-intensive program of neighborhood intervention any time soon.

"We are committed to having community policing," Mr. Schmoke told civic organizers last week when he was asked to expand two pilot programs in West and East Baltimore.

"But money promised by the state was cut by the governor just last week. We lost $5.5 million . . . I'd be remiss and less than honest with you if I said I could meet your specific goal."

Community-oriented policing is a strategy in which officers are assigned to specific neighborhoods, often on foot patrol, to assist residents and solve problems.

Proponents note that during the 1980s urban departments became prisoners of their 911 systems, so that officers did little more than run from one call to the next.

But from New York to Los Angeles to Houston, police officials have come to realize that neighborhood problem-solving takes time and money and officers.

New York's community-policing plan has been bolstered by more than 5,000 new officers hired with state money.

In Los Angeles, officials have said that they can't implement any meaningful program with 8,300 officers for 3 million people.

In Houston, so many officers were pulled out of regular patrol duties to do community-oriented service that disenchanted police began to refer to the "Neighborhood-Oriented Policing" or NOP program, as "Nobody On Patrol."

Struggling with a huge crime surge over the last five years, the Baltimore department is looking at a similar landscape, and even proponents of the new strategy acknowledge that resources are a problem. The department's authorized strength of sworn officers has fallen by nearly 1,000 positions over the last two decades.

"We'd like to have the Cadillac of community-policing plans," says Lt. Robert C. Novak, who is now involved in the department's planning for the change. "But if the numbers of officers aren't available, we are still going to go to community policing. We'll accomplish what we can by managing what we have better."

Mayor Schmoke agrees: "This is a philosophy that gets adapted to the unique needs of the individual cities. We don't need additional officers to begin to implement it. Whether we need additional officers in the future will be determined by the commissioner."

But community activists say they are becoming disenchanted with what they see as the department's glacial change.

In East and West Baltimore, the department has assigned two officers each to community-oriented duties in the Madison Avenue corridor and Barclay.

Working with Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development (BUILD), a citywide church-based group, the officers have spent several months walking the streets, participating in cleanup campaigns, interviewing residents and handling neighborhood complaints.

Along with BUILD officials and representatives of city agencies, the officers have been meeting regularly to plan problem-solving efforts. Last Wednesday, for example, Officer Kate Wood of the Eastern District joined a planning session at St. Ann's Roman Catholic Church on Greenmount Avenue, looking over a draft agreement being prepared between neighborhood residents and city housing and health officials.

"Can we get at some of the curfew problems involving juveniles in this covenant?" she asked, adopting the plural pronoun of a community activist. "Is there a way to get Juvenile Services involved?"

While community leaders say as yet there is little permanent effect on violence or drug trafficking in the area, they also say they are marshaling neighborhood support for that next step.

"It's encouraging, because what this kind of thing is supposed to do is empower people, to get them to take part," says Randy Keesler, the coordinator of the BUILD effort. "That's the only way you can change a community."

But Mr. Keesler and other BUILD officials are less encouraged by the mayor's acknowledgment last week that progress will be slow.

The community group sought a commitment for five more two-officer deployments in five more neighborhoods over the next six months.

Mr. Schmoke told the group that, because of fiscal and staffing problems, he could not make such a commitment.

Mr. Keesler adds that in discussions with police officials the group has been unable to get any timetable for change.

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