Beefing up city police

November 03, 1993

It is clear why Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke wants to rush to beef up the number of police on city streets. Bank robberies are at a record, so are homicides. Fear for one's personal safety has seldom been more acute. Meanwhile, the hard-pressed 2,900-officer police department is losing about 15 officers each month through retirement or burnout.

Mr. Schmoke thinks the impact of attrition can be negated if training is shortened from 29 weeks to 26. "I would never ask the police department to reduce its standards," he says to those who worry about a less professional police force.

Such concern is understandable. So many of the current applicants are unsuitable for law enforcement work that city police have to screen 20 candidates to fill each academy vacancy.

The length of Police Academy courses is important but not crucial. Many police departments successfully train their officers less time than Baltimore's 29 weeks. Baltimore County does it in 27 weeks; so does Prince George's. What matters more, then, is the content of the classes as well as subsequent in-service training.

If the citizens and taxpayers of Baltimore City had confidence in their city's police and political leadership, a compressed training plan would trigger little controversy. Many residents, however, are confused about the police department's mission and priorities. Repeated calls about brazen drug activity go unheeded, crack houses keep operating unhindered. The list goes on and on. Since taxpayers do not have much confidence in the police, any effort to shorten training becomes further evidence of weakening law enforcement.

We find it puzzling that Mr. Schmoke would make a political decision about altering police training less than two months before he expects to appoint a new police commissioner. Surely this is a matter that ought to be decided jointly by the new top cop and the mayor. Also, police effectiveness is determined by many other considerations, above all the use of existing manpower.

Currently, scarce police resources are often wasted in frustrating and unproductive run-arounds in court. Officers have to forgo normal work assignments -- or alter days off or second job schedules -- while they mill around courtrooms only to learn after several hours that their case is postponed for some seemingly extraneous reason.

Night court may be the stuff of television but certainly extended hours -- from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. -- would be a useful experiment in Baltimore City to cut the backlog of criminal cases and to make court appearances more convenient for witnesses and police on late shifts. These are changes at least as important as questionable reshuffling of police training without a clear master plan.

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