City police struggling with shortage 200 openings, 200 on long-term leave in department

'We are resource poor'

Officers reassigned from foot patrols to meet urgent needs

August 05, 1998|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

A shortage of police officers is straining Baltimore's crime-fighting efforts, prompting at least one district commander to borrow from his burglary, traffic and foot squads to keep up with emergency calls.

While top department commanders said public safety is not jeopardized, they acknowledge that the force -- with an authorized complement of 3,200 officers -- has about 200 openings and another 200 officers on long-term medical leave.

"Those are people who could be put to much better use if they could be put to work or retired," said Col. Elbert E. Shirey, chief of the patrol division. "Everything we do is based on the number of people we can put on the street."

Maj. John L. Bergbower, commander of the Southwestern District, has patched his 114-member patrol unit by reassigning officers who investigate burglaries and domestic violence and by pulling officers from foot patrols and neighborhood service squads.

"As you are all aware, we are experiencing a drastic increase in violent crime, especially in the area of homicides and nonfatal shootings," Bergbower wrote in a July 23 internal memo obtained by The Sun. "Since we are resource poor, we have basically attempted to control the problem though various initiatives and overtime deployment. Unfortunately, we cannot continue to rely on these methods on a continuous basis."

Relief won't come until early next year, after the next police academy class graduates 52 students on Oct. 23 and they complete 14 weeks of field training. But top commanders stress that the department has enough officers to fight crime.

"I don't know that [Bergbower] is having any more problems than anyone else," Shirey said. "District commanders never have enough. They have a job to do, and they have enough people to do the job, in our opinion. They just have to manage their resources properly."

Other district commanders and top-line supervisors echoed his assessment. "All my patrol shifts are staffed," said Maj. Timothy Longo, commander of the Southeastern District. "In a perfect world, there's not a commander who wouldn't enjoy additional officers."

But Officer Gary McLhinney, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, said he has heard of shortages in Southwest, Eastern, Northeastern and Southern districts.


"The rank and file is telling us that we are short of officers on the street, in some districts significantly," the union president said. "I don't see it as an officer-safety issue at this point. I do see it as hindering our ability to be proactive in fighting crime."

McLhinney praised Bergbower for highlighting the problem in writing. "I think Southwest has admitted they have a problem and has taken positive steps to address it," he said. "They are focusing on front-line officers." One way to solve the problem, he said, is to hire more police, beyond the academy graduates.

In an interview, Bergbower said that because of a high number of shootings and slayings in his district, he did not pull any XTC officers from his operations squad, which targets drug markets where much of the violence is concentrated.

Homicides up

Violent crime in Baltimore has dropped about 12 percent in the first half of the year, according to city police statistics, but homicides are 10 above last year's pace, from 176 to 186.

The Southwestern District has had a particularly tough time this year, with pockets of slayings and shootings in compact neighborhoods. Nine people have been killed and 17 shot in Shipley Hill and Carrollton Ridge. The district has recorded 30 homicides in the first half of this year, compared to 18 at the same time in 1997.

Bergbower said he has 196 people with the rank of officer in his district, 114 of whom are assigned to three patrol shifts. Of those, he said five officers are on suspended duty because of discipline, five are on long-term medical leave, and two are out with minor ailments.

"Patrol is the primary function," Bergbower said. "You have to have people to answer calls and provide the service. When you have district shortages, you use whatever personnel [are] available."

Part of the problem, commanders said, is the difficulty in keeping up with attrition, sick leave, vacations and retirement. The department finds itself behind even after spending $20 million in federal money since 1994, which has allowed it to hire 310 officers. In May, the department got another $10.8 million grant for another 100 officers.

A thriving economy and grants have swelled city and county coffers, fueling a hiring boom to fill new positions and vacancies throughout the area. But Baltimore officials say more officers are needed.

A recent pay raise boosted the starting salary of a Baltimore officer to $27,312, putting it ahead of Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, but still among the lowest in the state. The average salary for a Baltimore officer is about $40,000.

Long-term leave

Of more immediate concern for Baltimore police is the approximately 200 officers on long-term medical leave. In an effort to push many back to patrol, commanders three weeks ago started suspending police powers of any officer out more than two months.

Bergbower said the officers assigned to lengthy light-duty assignments take up slots that could be used by able-bodied officers to hit the street. And he said the shortage in the Southwestern District is taxing his crime-fighting force.

"Patrol commanders have informed me that they have not had the latitude to plan initiatives or conduct prevention because of the difficulty in maintaining their constant [strength]" he wrote in the memo.

Pub Date: 8/05/98

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