City Council, Frazier duel over staffing

Police officials faulted for not anticipating exodus of officers

Use of overtime criticized

Commissioner says proposed funding for department is too low

May 25, 1999|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Several angry Baltimore City Council members accused the police commissioner yesterday of failing to prepare for the expected exodus of 250 officers from an already understaffed police force.

Many members of the Budget Appropriations Committee said Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier's plan to use overtime to fill the anticipated gaps is unacceptable.

"We should have been planning for this a year ago," said Chairman Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr., who angrily suggested last week Frazier be ousted if answers aren't forthcoming. "We don't want citizens to suffer because of a problem in the system. We want answers."

Frazier countered that the proposed budget is inadequate and will force him to lay off civilian workers and fill their desk jobs with officers, leading to fewer arrests and convictions.

Police said yesterday that though the department is funded for 3,200 officers, 146 positions are unfilled. Officials acknowledged that because of retirements, sick leave, injuries and disciplinary proceedings, each of the city's nine patrol districts is understaffed, some by as much as 30 percent.

Frazier said yesterday that residents are adequately protected because officers are working overtime and some district commanders have shifted personnel, such as burglary investigators, to bolster street patrols.

He complained during the hearing that the proposed $199 million police budget -- a $7 million increase over this year's police spending -- is not enough. The city's fiscal 2000 budget proposal is $1.8 billion.

If the budget is passed in its current form, Frazier said, 110 civilian employees -- including 56 community service workers -- will be laid off. Sworn officers would be shifted to some of those positions from street patrol. He warned that strategies that have reduced crime by as much as 30 percent over the past three years will suffer.

"This is a dramatic reversal of progress of the past four years years, when 300 sworn officers were redeployed from administrative duties to direct police service," Frazier said.

The proposed budget, the commissioner said, would mean an end to the remote control robot used to defuse bombs and would impair criminal investigations.

Frazier repeatedly said it is difficult to make contingency plans when no one knows how many officers will retire.

The incentive program, called Deferred Retirement Option Plan, or DROP, was instituted in 1996 by union and city officials who were worried that a slew of veteran officers and firefighters might leave at once. They wanted to offer them an incentive to stay.

Officers eligible to retire can remain on the force while drawing a pension equal to a half-year's salary for a maximum of three years. The pension money must go into the bank while the officer receives full salary. Once the officer retires, the money can be withdrawn.

More than 600 police officers are eligible to retire this summer. The department expects about 250 to leave by July 1.

The department has launched a recruiting drive, but commanders say it is cheaper to pay officers overtime to fill vacancies until the number of retiring officers is known.

Frazier said he agreed with some of the council members' concerns but stressed that he is doing what he can "so that we do not have empty patrol cars."

The commissioner also said that money saved because of the expected retirements -- estimated to be about $3.9 million -- cannot be used to hire officers because it is needed to cover a $4 million shortfall in the department's budget this fiscal year.

City Council members were not impressed with Frazier's answers, saying he failed to streamline his staff. He has 45 commanders under him, compared with the 53 in place before he took over five years ago, they said. D'Adamo, who represents Southeast Baltimore, said the more than 60 officers assigned to the Police Athletic League should be replaced with retired officers to help boost the patrol ranks.

D'Adamo and Councilman Martin O'Malley, who represents a district in Northeast Baltimore, wanted to know why the Police Department failed to take action in advance while the Fire Department hired an additional 133 firefighters to cover its anticipated retirements under the same incentive program.

Council members said that with retirements and vacancies, the department could be under strength by as many as 400 officers during the height of summer, "when crime is at its highest," said Council President Lawrence A Bell III, who plans to run for mayor.

While Frazier said the department can absorb the expected retirements, Councilwoman Helen Holton, who represents a northwest Baltimore district, pointed out that the Northwestern District is staffed at 68 percent, factoring in vacant positions and officers on sick leave or ordered to desk duty because of discipline.

Police Col. Robert Smith told her: "There is adequate coverage."

"I would beg to differ," Holton replied. "People are calling me and saying there is a delay in response. I have heard from officers who are saying, `We need help. There is not enough coverage.' "

Pub Date: 5/25/99

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