Districts told to fill patrol cars

Baltimore police staffing `inadequate,' chiefs' memo says

Shortage calls for overtime

Union leader says supervisors left with too few officers

July 10, 1999|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

A brief but stern memorandum sent to Baltimore police commanders this week warns that department staffing is "inadequate at best," and promises disciplinary action against supervisors who leave patrol cars empty.

"No shift will, in the future, hit the streets without the required manpower to cover all posts," the memo, written by the two chiefs of the patrol division, says.

District majors and lieutenants have been authorized "to pay overtime or use any other means at their disposal" to ensure citizens receive proper police protection in their neighborhoods.

What is unclear from the two-paragraph memo, which was obtained by The Sun, is whether the shortage is hampering the city's ability to fight crime, or whether this is merely a bureaucratic entanglement that can be solved with better management. The shortage has been known for several months, but police have maintained that protection was adequate.

Col. Elbert Shirey, one of the patrol chiefs who signed the memo, said district supervisors were not properly entering staffing data into a computer, triggering a shortage on paper that does not mirror reality.

The colonel said the memo was written to get supervisors to input accurate and up-to-date information in the department's computers. The memo says nothing about a computer problem.

Shirey conceded that all nine police districts are operating below strength, but commanders can avoid staffing problems by managing better.

"Crime is down and continues to go down," Shirey said. "Homi cides are down and continue to go down. It gets a little short from time to time. We tell district commanders: They are personnel managers. They have to work around these obstacles and earn their money."

Shirey said there were "some isolated incidents where [supervisors] did not fill the patrol cars. The reason, from our perspective, was poor management of district resources."

But Officer Gary McLhinney, the president of the police union, said he has fielded phone calls from district commanders complaining that they are so short of officers that they disbanded foot patrols and burglary squads to patch together patrol shifts.

"The tone of this memo clearly does not indicate that this is a paperwork problem," McLhinney said. "You can't have a job that requires 20 police officers, give commanders 10 and then blame them for not getting the job done."

The department has an authorized strength of 3,188 officers. There are 146 positions unfilled, and an additional 200 to 250 officers are out because of extended sick leave or disciplinary action.

Also, a retirement incentive plan has prompted a further exodus of experienced officers.

From January through yesterday, the police union says, 230 officers have retired. An additional 52 have either been fired or quit, including 21 who resigned this week and went to work for the Baltimore County Police Department.

Union officials and City Council members had warned about the potential retirement exodus for three years -- the incentive program kicked in this year -- and they criticized Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier at a hearing in May for not preparing for it. Frazier said it was difficult to do anything because no one knew how many of the eligible 600 officers would leave.

Frazier said that a hiring initiative would eventually bring the department back up to strength, and that overtime could be used to fill gaps in the meantime. Last year, Frazier spent $6 million in overtime; he was budgeted $3.5 million.

City Councilman Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr., chairman of the Budget Appropriations Committee, said the department's management mistakes are now coming "at the expense of the citizens of Baltimore."

D'Adamo, once one of Frazier's biggest supporters, said he believes commanders will not let patrol falter. But, he said, drug squads, prostitution details and bicycle patrols "are being crippled."

Police officials would not release a district-by-district breakdown of staffing figures yesterday, but said of the 2,218 funded patrol positions, 1,915 were filled. But even fewer officers are actually available to fill squad cars. Figuring in officers out on discipline and medical leave, only 1,697 officers, or 76 percent, are available for duty, a department spokeswoman said.

Shirey said that even with the shortages, there are plenty of officers to go around. He said audits found many supervisors failing to properly manage days off, giving some districts an over-complement of officers on some days and too few on others.

The commander of the Southwestern District, Maj. John L. Bergbower, said that he almost always has every patrol car filled.

He said he uses overtime to fill vacancies and shifts some officers away from neighborhoods without crime problems to areas where burglaries, robberies and shootings are more prevalent. He said 911 emergency calls are always quickly answered.

The major pointed out that despite the attrition of officers from his district, violent crime has dropped 23 percent this year. "We are using less resources and getting better results," he said.

Pub Date: 7/10/99

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