City police put partners back on the streets

Officers, officials say pairs riding in cars are more efficient, safer

Fewer calls for backup

Staffing shortfall means huge overtime totals to maintain patrol levels

June 25, 2000|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

From the quiet, tree-lined streets of Roland Park to the gritty drug corners of Rosemont, Baltimore police are trying a fundamentally different crime-fighting strategy: two officers in a car.

Officers are doubling up in every cruiser in every area of the city, strengthening police presence on the streets. Partnering, more commonly used in bigger cities, might surprise residents used to seeing lone officers.

The primary reason for the new approach is the vast crime problem evident on street corners, communal gathering places from which much of the city's open-air drug trade is directed.

"These are arguably the most dangerous corners in the country," said Commissioner Edward T. Norris. "We ask the police to intervene, but they are by themselves."

Officers, he said, "were not being as proactive as I wanted, which was understandable because they rode alone."

Norris said that having partners will reduce the need for constant backup calls that draw several cruisers to sometimes routine situations and away from streets and neighborhoods they are assigned to protect.

Partnering is needed even in the safest communities, Norris said. "You never know what you are walking into," he said. "It's the calls that you don't expect anything to happen that a lot of cops get hurt."

The plan emphasizes keeping the same number of cars on patrol as before. But more officers are required each shift to keep two officers in each car.

To accomplish that, the short-staffed department is paying tens of thousands of dollars in overtime to officers eager to work double shifts.

"It has been rough," said Officer Tom Brown, who has worked 97 hours of overtime in the past two weeks and concedes that he has not seen much of his 7-year-old son. "But we're going on vacation, and this [money] has been a blessing."

When not enough officers are available, district supervisors sometimes combine patrol areas. That makes the same number of officers in fewer cars responsible for a larger territory.

Having partners is the biggest change in the way officers work their beats since the 1960s, when the department abandoned foot patrols and motorized the force to keep up with increasingly mobile criminals. The city's reform-minded commissioner, Donald D. Pomerleau, revolutionized policing with single-officer car patrols.

"He believed he would accomplish increased response time and increase the coverage area," said Capt. Gary D'Addario, who joined the force in 1966. "It would look like we had a policeman around every corner."

Difficult undertaking

Norris said his changes will be re-evaluated after a time and that two-officer cars might end up being used only in neighborhoods with the highest crime rates. He conceded that sustaining the effort will be difficult, as officers tire and the city runs short of money to implement it.

Police supervisors said they try not to combine patrol posts. But officers said that when that happens, they respond to twice as many calls as usual, which leaves streets and sometimes neighborhoods unprotected for hours.

Norris said it is up to supervisors to combine posts that are usually quiet and not in need of a police car dedicated to them at all times. He said the time saved by not having several cars back up officers as often justifies the trade-off.

He said a common complaint from residents is that "they saw two and three and four police cars herding and then caravaning in and out of police calls. The complaints from the communities were that the cops weren't patrolling their post anyway. They were in and out all day."

Lots of overtime

The department is dipping into its operations budget to pay the overtime, and Norris said he expects supervisors to monitor how much officers are working to make sure they don't burn out.

"We're going to find a middle ground," he said, adding that officers "should not be working 100 hours of overtime in two weeks."

Officer Gary McLhinney, the police union president, supports the concept but said the troops are getting tired. "It literally puts help for an officer at arm's length," he said. "Tactically, it's the right way to police."

Neil Behan, who retired as Baltimore County police chief in 1993, agreed. "Officers do feel much better going into certain neighborhoods and certain situations by having a partner," he said.

But Behan, who spent 31 years on the New York City force before coming to Baltimore County, said, "In most situations, you don't need two-men cars. One man is more efficient and a heck of a lot easier on the budget."

Not the norm

Having a partner, though a mainstay of television police dramas, is far from the norm.

Only a handful of big-city departments fill the passenger seat in their vehicles regularly - among them New York, Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles.

Other large cities, such as Washington, do it when they have sufficient staffing and only in high-crime areas.

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