City police are hard put to replace scores retiring

Incentive plan kept hundreds of officers on job extra 3 years

April 09, 1999|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Baltimore police officers, cashing in on a lucrative retirement package, are expected to leave the force in droves this summer -- sparking a frantic recruitment drive to fill the depleted ranks.

More than 600 senior officers -- nearly 20 percent of the 3,188-member department -- are eligible to retire, taking with them checks worth tens of thousands of dollars and for a few as much $200,000.

Estimates of the likely number of departures vary, with the police union pegging it at 350 officers and the department predicting no more than 250.

But even the lower figure will create a serious shortage in an already understaffed department struggling to keep up with attrition.

"It's difficult to say exactly what's going to happen," said Col. Elbert Shirey, one of two chiefs of patrol. "We have to learn to do more with less."

Police recruiters are fanning out across the region, from rural college campuses nestled in Pennsylvania cornfields to seaside naval ports in Virginia, in addition to city schools, churches and businesses in the midst of layoffs.

But competition is intense. A strong economy and an influx of federal dollars have left cities flush with money and eager to bolster crime-fighting efforts after years of stagnation caused by budget shortfalls.

"There is a full-scale police recruiting war going on in every metropolitan area in the country," said Sheldon F. Greenberg, chairman of the Police Executive Leadership Program at the Johns Hopkins University.

Baltimore's stepped-up hiring efforts may keep up only with attrition, which claims 11 officers a month.

The department is short more than 400 officers in patrol divisions, counting vacancies and officers on suspension, desk duty and medical leave. Only 1,673 of the 2,089 funded positions in the department's front-line crime-fighting forces are filled.

Each of the nine city police districts is short of personnel. Northwestern, for example, should have nearly 200 officers available for patrol; most recent figures available show it has fewer than 150.

Commanders acknowledge that overtime is being paid to ensure adequate protection in some neighborhoods and that operations squads established to quell trouble in crime hot spots are helping with routine patrol.

Maj. John L. Bergbower, the head of the Southwestern District, said that as of March 22, he is funded for 206 officers but has 186. An additional 21 are on light duty, suspension or medical leave, giving him an actual street strength of 165. He said he expects to lose eight to 10 sergeants and lieutenants this summer because of the retirement incentive plan.

To compensate, he said, he has patched together patrol squads by curtailing administrative and investigative units. Detectives who usually investigate burglaries are driving patrol cars.

"The service that people get every day is up to par," he said.

Commanders said it is hard to plan when they don't know how many officers will retire in the coming months. But Officer Gary McLhinney, president of Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 3, said the problem was known three years ago and should have been dealt with sooner.

"We are calling it a crisis," the union head said.

McLhinney said the union proposed converting the tens of millions of dollars the department will save through the mass retirements to wages. The starting salary for city police is $27,312, putting Baltimore's new officers among the lowest-paid in the state.

Melvin Harris, the city's labor negotiator, said there might not be much money left, given the cost of putting new hires through six months of training, covering a $3 million Police Department budget deficit and continuing programs started with federal grants that run out this year.

Officers are getting a 4 percent pay increase July 1, bringing the starting salary to $28,404.

The accelerated hiring pace also has created a concern that standards could be compromised.

Three years ago, Washington, D.C., stepped up hiring and ended up with a class of young officers who provoked a number of brutality complaints and many who slipped onto the force with felony convictions.

"They tell me that standards aren't compromised, and I haven't seen evidence that they are," McLhinney said. "But when you hurry the process, you make mistakes. We aren't hiring fast-food cooks. We give people badges and guns and the authority to take a life."

Shirey said standards will not be relaxed. "I would rather run a little short than hire quick and suffer the consequences," he said. "We're getting good quality now."

The colonel said the department can boost patrols by shuffling personnel and using money saved by retirements to pay overtime.

"I feel absolutely confident that whatever hit we take," he said, "the public will not notice any lapse in service."

But top police officials are worried. Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier sent a letter last month to every officer's home pleading for help in finding recruits willing to accept "the challenge of serving as peace officers in our urban community."

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