Police station shut to public part of day

City staffing shortage leads commander to act in Northeastern District

`Save a little overtime'

Union leader questions move, but says officers needed more on street

August 07, 1999|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

The staffing shortage that has left Baltimore police struggling to fill patrol cars has forced one commander to take the unprecedented step of closing a police station to the public in the early morning.

Over the past several weeks, visitors to the Northeastern District on Argonne Drive between midnight and 7 a.m. were greeted with a sign on the public entrance advising them to call 911 in an emergency. A pay phone is next to the door.

People trying to call the district's main number between those hours didn't fare much better. "You have reached the Northeastern District," a recording said. "Everyone is on the street. If it is an emergency, dial 911. If it's urgent, but not an emergency, call 311."

Maj. Arthur Smith, district commander, said he was forced to take such measures because recent budget cuts eliminated all of his civilian workers. He said he staffs the front desk whenever he has a midnight shift officer who cannot work the street because of injuries.

"We're trying to save a little overtime," Smith said. "It's not a matter of enough police. It's a matter of enough civilians. Would you rather have someone in your neighborhood or sitting at a desk waiting for a phone to ring at 4 a.m.?"

Police work out of the police station on Argonne Drive; it's just not open to the public.

Stations in the other eight police districts remain open 24 hours a day.

Baltimore County police said their precincts are always open. "We are here to protect and serve," said Cpl. Vickie Warehime, a department spokeswoman. "That's our job."

Agent Ragina L. Cooper, a city police spokeswoman, said Smith's actions were authorized by the department "on a trial basis" and that Northeastern is the only station taking such measures.

Others questioned the move.

"The community is accustomed to these station houses being open 24 hours," said Officer Gary McLhinney, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3. "Many times, people have come to the station to file complaints because they can't use the phone in their house."

The union president said Smith should fill patrol cars before putting officers behind desks, but added: "We shouldn't have to make those kind of choices. Even 7-Elevens are open 24 hours a day."

The move comes a month after the two chiefs of patrol sent a stern memorandum to all supervisors saying that department staffing is "inadequate at best" and ordered them to make sure every patrol car was filled or face discipline. The force has 3,188 officers.

Col. Elbert Shirey, one of the patrol chiefs, conceded at the time that all nine police districts were operating below strength. But he said lieutenants and majors had enough officers, and any shortages on the street were because of poor management, not inadequate staffing.

Of the 2,218 funded patrol positions, 1,915 are filled, according to figures provided by a police spokeswoman. But fewer officers are available for street work. Figuring in officers out on discipline or medical leave, 1,697 officers are available for duty.

Some district commanders have said they curtailed investigative squads, such as burglary units, and temporarily halted foot patrols to ensure all emergency calls could be answered.

City Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier has said a hiring initiative would eventually bring the department up to strength and overtime could be used to fill any gaps. Last year, he spent $6 million in overtime, nearly double what was budgeted.

Three Northeast Baltimore community organizations said yesterday they were unaware of the closing.

Jeff Sattler, president of the Lauraville Improvement Association, said he would not call the station in an emergency anyway. "I'm calling 911," he said. "If I had to chose between having an officer in the precinct or on the street, I'd rather the officer be on the street."

Anthony Mezatasta, president of the Beverly Hills Improvement Association, said he wanted to talk to police officials before pronouncing judgment. "That does concern me, and I would like to find out more information on the reasons why this took place," he said.

McLhinney said the closing of a station, even for a few hours, "is more symbolic of the staffing problems that we have than a public safety issue. The problem is, they have a sign directing people there for police protection."

Smith said he has received no complaints, and added that officers check the answering machine every hour.

Sun staff writer La Quinta Dixon contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 8/07/99

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