Housing Authority proposes laying off police to trim budget

September 20, 2000|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

The Housing Authority of Baltimore City is proposing that its 110-member police force be cut in half - mostly through layoffs - because the agency has eliminated several high-crime public housing high-rises.

That is just the start of a three-year plan to cut $3.7 million from the police agency's $8 million budget - a move that would reduce the police agency to 40 sworn officers by 2003.

The first phase would abolish one lieutenant, 10 sergeant and 42 officer positions, resulting in 39 people losing their jobs. Fourteen of those spots are vacant. Sixty-four civilian positions would also be cut.

Housing Police Chief Hezekiah Bunch outlined the proposal in a confidential memorandum obtained by The Sun. Officers learned of the plan yesterday and reacted with outrage.

An unsigned flier was passed around yesterday urging workers to speak out. "Tell everyone you know about his plans," it said. "Let it be heard!!!!!"

Housing Commissioner Patricia C. Payne said the proposal will undergo 90 days of review. The police force is funded with federal money, and she said every agency in the housing department is being asked to make budget cuts.

She said the plans for the police force reflect a new era in which high-rise buildings, hotbeds of crime, have been knocked down and are being replaced with low-rise, mixed-income developments that are easier to police.

Mayor Martin O'Malley and several state senators had proposed in February that the hous- ing force be merged with the city police department. But the city could not absorb the cost of 110 police transfers at once.

The housing police force was formed in 1991 as crime started to surge in the city. Payne said her agency wants to maintain its own police force "to provide extra security" to its residents.

Payne also said Bunch is talking with the city department, which has about 400 vacancies in its 3,200-member department, about the possibility of housing officers transferring. Both are trained at the same academy.

Bunch was not available for comment yesterday. Maj. Cornelius Hairston said he saw the proposal for the first time yesterday.

"It would be kind of difficult," he said of the cuts. "We'd do the best we could do. I'm not sure that proposal will even go through."

Hairston said that even though six high-rises have been destroyed, "we still have the same number of developments. ... Calls for service are still high."

One of the biggest complaints from officers is not that the changes would compromise public safety, but that people are being targeted for layoffs before other waste is eliminated.

The first round of cuts would spare the department's hierarchy, which includes the chief, who earns $84,396 a year, and three majors, who earn a combined $196,188.

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