Baltimore Co. police chief salutes proposed staffing

May 06, 1994|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun Staff Writer

Baltimore County police had one of the highest vacancy rates and one of the lowest pay scales in the metropolitan area in 1993, but things are looking up this year, Chief Michael D. Gambrill told the County Council yesterday.

"We are no longer threatened with mediocrity," he told council members, referring to former Chief Cornelius J. Behan's warning two years ago as budget cuts began to take their toll on the department.

The hearing on County Executive Roger B. Hayden's proposed 1994-1995 police budget came several weeks after the council's auditor issued a politically touchy report outlining the department's staffing problems in 1993.

Although 100 officers retired in 1992, there was a near hiring freeze in 1993. The stress of keeping overworked officers -- many removed from investigative squads -- on street patrol produced a sharp increase in injuries and sick leave in 1993. Response time to routine calls increased, and the number of patrol cars left unstaffed during regular shifts nearly doubled.

But Chief Gambrill told the council yesterday that relief was in sight in a budget that would add 20 sworn officers to the department, increasing the authorized strength from 1,482 to 1,502.

Police officials said that in addition to current recruits, the department is hiring civilian employees and 36 cadets who can free uniformed officers for street duty. The 1994-1995 budget would add 13 more civilians. A contract with a private firm to transport prisoners to District Court will free still more officers.

Twenty-four new recruit officers began patrol in February, while 115 are in training. Another 15 experienced officers, including 10 from Baltimore's force, will join the county ranks in August after a brief re-training course. Baltimore County also has applied for federal funds authorized in the Clinton administration crime bill to pay for 23 officers.

With the additional employees, the department will create a detective squad that concentrates on gun crimes, Chief Gambrill said. Currently, he said, precinct officers don't have time to trace weapons or check for violations of federal or state law involving many suspects arrested in weapons cases.

jTC Although relief is in sight, the actual strength of the force dropped from a high of 1,534 officers in February 1991 to a low of 1,404 in February 1994, according to a report by the County Council auditor, Stephen L. Kirchner.

The vacancy rate in February 1994, based on an authorized strength that was already 99 positions below 1991 levels, was 5.3 percent, double the rate for the Baltimore City force. However, it was lower than the county's 9 percent vacancy rate in 1992.

The vacancy rate at county patrol precincts was even higher -- 15 percent, counting injured officers out on leave -- although new recruits due to graduate in July should reduce that officials said.

At the same time, county police salaries ranked "at or near the bottom for all salary categories" compared with other local jurisdictions, according to the audit. Police and other county workers will get a 4 percent raise July 1 if the council approves.

The effects of the staff shortage, low pay and increased workload showed up in several other statistical measurements, according to Chief Gambrill and the county auditor.

Injuries to on-duty patrol officers increased by 39 percent in 1993, and sick leave was up 14 percent. Some of those sick calls came from officers who needed a rest but really may not have been ill, Major Ernest L. Crist told the council.

Officers working 12- or 14-hour days to compensate for shortages, attending court on their days off, and fearful of losing their time off at the end of each year sometimes may call in sick, he suggested. The audit indicated that as many as 100 officers were on some type of leave on any day.

Because of the staff shortage, the number of idle patrol cars nearly doubled during 1993. "One car on each shift in each precinct is not running" because of the shortages, Chief Gambrill said.

Although he said average response time to emergency calls is good at two minutes, 48 seconds, the response time for nonemergency calls increased from six to nine minutes between 1989 and 1994.

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