Bill merges housing, city police forces

Mayor O'Malley likes state Senate proposal to add more officers

`We're all on board'

Funding, logistics of possible merger could hold up plan

February 14, 2000|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

In an effort to beef up Baltimore police street patrols, Mayor Martin O'Malley is backing proposed state Senate legislation to merge the city's Housing Authority Police with the Baltimore Police Department.

Although the logistics of the plan -- including funding -- must be worked out, police Commissioner Ronald L. Daniel and the city's state senators support the concept, which would instantly add 110 sworn housing officers to a struggling city force with an estimated 400 vacancies.

"I'm excited about the notion," O'Malley said Friday after testifying on the city legal system in Annapolis. "There are a lot of little details, but I don't think they are deal-breakers. We're all on board with the goal."

Discussion of merging the two police forces -- which both train at the Baltimore police academy -- began shortly after O'Malley's election in November.

O'Malley has hired former New York Deputy Police Commissioner Jack Maple as a consultant. Maple led a similar merger of housing and city police there to help reduce that city's murder rate from 2,000 in 1994 to slightly more than 600 last year.

State Sen. Joan Carter Conway, an O'Malley ally and former 3rd District City Council colleague, introduced the measure, Senate Bill 347. Conway, whose step-grandson was fatally shot a week ago in the city, said merging the two forces makes sense as police try to stop open-air drug dealing and reduce the more than 300 annual killings associated with it.

"It augments the city police service by making sure we have the right amount of police on the street," Conway said.

City housing officials said O'Malley's support will be critical to the concept.

"If that's the way he wants it," said city housing spokesman Zack Germroth, "that's the way it should go."

During the past two years, Baltimore has demolished three of its four high-rise public housing projects, which once served as the patrol grounds for the Housing Authority Police, first sworn in as a department in 1991. The fourth and final high-rise -- Flag House Courts -- will be torn down next summer.

The areas have been replaced with mixed-income townhouse neighborhoods that merge with adjacent city enclaves. In addition to the sworn officers, the authority has 126 security monitors in public housing for the elderly.

Source of salary in question

City police and fire union officials expressed concern over the financial costs of the merger. The federal government pays most of the $8 million annually for the housing police from national public housing funds. The city would have to petition the U.S. Department of Justice to allow the money to be used to augment the city force.

"We can't afford to absorb these positions," said Gary McLhinney, president of the Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police union. "We're supportive of the concept, but the bill itself needs work."

Besides the possible financial impact on the city, the additional forces could put a strain on the police and fire pension systems, said Stephen G. Fugate, president of the Baltimore Fire Officers Association union.

"When you put that many people into the system, it does have an impact," Fugate said.

Baltimore has 2,990 sworn officers. Daniel recently told the City Council about the urgent need to fill 200 police vacancies and an additional 200 officer absences because of injuries, illness and disabilities.

Departments cooperate

The housing and city police forces have increasingly worked together in recent years. Shortly after O'Malley's inauguration in December, officers from both squads joined the mayor in City Hall to be commended for working together to capture fugitives wanted in the fatal shootings of five women in Belair-Edison.

Daniel would not comment on the Conway bill because he has not reviewed it, he said Friday, but he respects the housing force.

"We have a pretty good working relationship with the housing police department," Daniel said.

Although O'Malley and his administrators would like to see the merger, they acknowledged that the bill and process could be derailed by logistics.

"I think it's something that we will see," McLhinney said. "But it's something that may have to be studied a little longer."

In Annapolis

Today's highlights:

Senate Budget and Taxation Committee hearing on the Maryland Department of Transportation budget, 1 p.m., Senate office building, Room 100.

House of Delegates meets, 8 p.m., House chamber.

Senate meets, 8 p.m., Senate chamber.

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