Numbers show an ever-thinner deterrent force

February 06, 1994|By David Simon | David Simon,Sun Staff Writer

Where did the blue legions go? The same Police Department that could boast an authorized strength of almost 3,500 officers in the mid-1970s, can now only muster 2,96the downtown area. By 1982, the district's complement was 284. Last year, 247 officers covered that terrain.

The most crime-ridden inner-city precincts were not spared. Over two decades, staffing in the Western District declined by 25 percent. And even in the Eastern, which this year was brought up to full strength to implement the department's fledgling community policing effort, the complement has fallen by 31 officers.

The traffic section -- once a reservoir of personnel for special events -- was slashed by more than 60 percent as the city saved money by replacing officers with lower-paying traffic enforcement positions: "Now, when there's a ballgame," says one high-ranking commander, "every district has to send more bodies down to the stadium."

Likewise, the tactical section -- the units that assist everything from drug suppression in the high-rise projects to a Preakness Day Parade to a major civil disturbance -- has been dramatically reduced. In 1972, there were 302 officers assigned to tactical duties; now, there are 187.

"Our strength is down all across the board," says Maj. Ronald Daniels, the department's personnel director. "We don't have the people to do what we need to do."

When gauged by raw population, this city does not fare poorly in terms of police protection. On a per capita basis, cities such Washington, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York have more officers patrolling their streets than Baltimore. Boston, Houston, Los Angeles and Cleveland have fewer.

And while Baltimore has reduced its police force by more than 600 officers since the 1970s, the city's population was declining zTC as well. In 1983 there were 37.9 officers for every 10,000 residents; today the ratio is a comparable 37.6.

But many law enforcement experts say raw population is a poor measure of requisite police protection. About 800 officers are sufficient to police the 750,000 residents of affluent Montgomery County, while more than three times that number are unable to control crime among the same number of Baltimoreans. The obvious, unavoidable factors in the equation: poverty, unemployment, drugs.

In fact, when measured against its own rate of violence in 1992, Baltimore was among one of the most understaffed departments in the nation. New York, Detroit, Houston, Boston, Cleveland, Chicago -- all have more officers available to respond to a given crime. Washington, with its 4,500-officer force, has 26 officers available for every 100 violent crimes -- double the ratio in Baltimore. To the north, Philadelphia has almost 33 officers for the same workload. In Baltimore, the number is 13.

Neither Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke nor his police leadership can be held liable for the long-term decline in police strength. In fact, it was William Donald Schaefer, who, as Baltimore's mayor, began reducing the ranks in the mid-1970s. "Don Schaefer got away with it because crime was down in the late '70s and early '80s," says one high-ranking state law enforcement official, who asked not to be identified. "Then the drug epidemic hit."

But if it was Mr. Schaefer who first thinned the department, Police Department officials now say that Mr. Schmoke erred as well by attempting to reduce departmental strength further at a time when crime was already rising.

"The trouble with a hiring freeze is that it's not like turning off a spigot. You can't just turn it and expect water," says Major Daniels, the department's head of personnel. "If you don't have an academy class in the pipeline and all of a sudden you need more troops, you're going to have to wait."

This is exactly what happened in 1991, when Mr. Schmoke, facing state funding cuts, subjected all city agencies to a hiring freeze while at the same time offering police officers the option of retirement after 20 years.

L "In May of '92 alone we lost 70 people," says Major Daniels.

Last year the mayor countermanded himself, but by that time, the department was in a defensive crouch. Gone, too, were many veteran commanders, supervisors and investigators who opted for early retirement or took better-paying positions with suburban departments or state and federal agencies.

"It was short-sighted. They saved some money by replacing 20-year officers with new recruits who were at starting salaries," says one police commander. "But cops aren't meter maids; you can't replace any one with any other. A rookie patrolman isn't the same as a 20-year veteran."

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