Police training cuts raise alarms in Baltimore Mayor wants officers on the street sooner

October 31, 1993|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,Staff Writer

Some of them have used drugs. A few can't read or write above grade-school level. And a troubling number of them can't shoot straight.

They are relatively recent problems at the Baltimore Police Academy where one out of 10 recruits needs remedial training to become fit to put on the blue uniform of a city police officer.

So it was with some alarm last week that senior officers and friends of the department received the news that Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has ordered the academy's training program cut so he can put 330 new officers on the street by 1997 -- in addition to about 250 rookies the academy already trains every year to keep pace with retirements and resignations.

The first 150 new officers are scheduled to hit the street next year at a projected cost to taxpayers of more than $4 million.

"They have to make split-second life-and-death decisions based on a high school education and whatever they pick up in that academy class," said Harlow Fullwood Jr., who retired from the department in 1987 after 23 years as its chief recruiter. "So I will never believe it's a good idea to cut back that training."

But between the warnings of veterans such as Mr. Fullwood and the mandate from the mayor's office, there is much disagreement about how much training a modern police officer needs and whether Baltimore's academy program may actually be improved by cutting impractical training courses.

There is no disagreement that a city racked by a record 335 murders last year needs all the officers it can get. Or that the department's fledgling "community policing" plan to put more police on foot patrol in the neighborhoods will require more people to succeed. Or that Mr. Schmoke's 1995 re-election campaign could surge or waiver depending on how well he deals with crime and critics who say he is mismanaging the Police Department -- instead of leaving the department's operation to a new police commissioner to be named next month.

Mayor Schmoke did not respond to repeated requests for an interview last week to answer concerns raised by police observers who say he may be courting disaster by trying to do too much too soon.

"All over the country, incumbents who once looked very secure are losing to underdog challengers -- and the reason is crime," said political analyst Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia professor of government.

"Every private poll I've seen nationwide shows this one issue moving ahead as the prime concern to voters -- ahead even of the economy in some regions. People want relief, things like more officers on the street. And Mayor Schmoke or any other mayor or governor who doesn't deliver is tempting fate on Election Day."

But the only way to deliver more officers in cash-strapped Baltimore by 1995 is to cut police training.

That's because the city doesn't have the money to increase the size of its academy and a hiring freeze ordered by the mayor in 1991 slowed the department's recruitment efforts. So police administrators must now speed up recruitment by launching an advertising campaign and hiring five new background investigators to handle the extra resumes. And they have to shorten the curriculum to get more officers through faster.

"Basically what the mayor did is to freeze the hiring of new officers -- which enabled him to build up a surplus in the police budget -- so he could hire all these people at once that he should have been hiring all along," said Councilman Lawrence A. Bell III, a 4th District Democrat and chairman of the council's Public Safety Committee.

'Legitimate concerns'

"The way the sergeants and lieutenants describe it, he turned off the faucet and now he's trying to prime the pump by lowering the requirements. I don't want to beat him over the head with it, but the mayor is being hypersensitive right now to what he sees as criticism when people in the department and the public have legitimate concerns about where this might lead us."

The worst place it might lead the city, experts say, is a situation similar to Miami's.

In police circles, Florida's largest city is the most frequently cited example of what can happen when a hiring drive outstrips a department's ability to train and absorb a large number of new recruits.

"You get shorter academies, dropping standards, remedial courses and swamped sergeants who can't properly train and supervise all the new troops," said Kenneth I. Harms, chief of the Miami Police Department from 1978 to 1984 when a city-ordered hiring drive doubled his force in two years.

"Eventually, that leads to command and control problems and the kind of corruption and brutality charges that this department is still dealing with almost 10 years later."

As of last week, police trainers in Baltimore already had shaved 140 hours from their 26 1/2 -week course and were eyeing another 80 or so hours of psychology, sociology and English courses that some say are short on practical insights that officers use on the street. Those cuts would reduce the overall program to 21 weeks.

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