Will city just sit back as veteran police go? Exodus: Anticipated loss of 250 seasoned Baltimore officers leaves police scrambling for coverage.

May 30, 1999

FOR THREE years, Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier has known that a staffing crunch loomed as of July 31. That's when hundreds of veteran officers are eligible to retire. Yet he has taken inadequate measures to avert a crisis.

It's not too late. But so far, the commissioner, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and City Council members have failed to do anything to prevent a wholesale police exodus.

The Police Department's inaction is puzzling. It stands in stark contrast to orderly preparations by the Fire Department, which is also facing a wave of retirements by seasoned officers. It stepped up hiring in anticipation of the hemorrhage.

When the City Council confronted Mr. Frazier on the issue last week, he assured members that Baltimore residents would be adequately protected by officers, working overtime if necessary.

Perhaps. Yet the city's nine districts already have such serious staffing shortages that some specialized squads, including burglary units, have been decimated. Less than 70 percent of the department's full complement of officers are on duty across the city.

This is exactly the kind of crunch the city wanted to avoid three years ago. Under the Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP), police and fire officers eligible for retirement were given hefty incentives if they agreed to postpone their departures from then until now.

No one knows for sure how many veteran officers will depart in July. About 250 police veterans are expected to leave, on top of 150 vacancies on the 3,100-officer force. Many retiring officers intend to join suburban police departments, including Baltimore County's.

Nothing forces those veterans to leave, according to pension official Thomas Taneyhill. Even though they have exercised their incentives, they can stay on indefinitely. But since no one has made this plea to them, most have been looking for post-retirement jobs.

The City Council, mayor and police commissioner still have time to make changes in the DROP program to encourage veterans to stay. That these decision-makers have failed to consider such adjustments is a dereliction.

In the mid-1970s, New York showed that a grossly understaffed police department can operate for a while. But the makeshift operation eventually started to collapse. Routine matters, like processing crime evidence, became haphazard; grant applications weren't submitted on time; professionalism suffered.

Baltimore cannot afford for this to happen. Mr. Schmoke, Mr. Frazier and the council must take emergency action to ensure that police retirements do not endanger law and order in the city.

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