Two Baltimore County councilmen say the county should consider allowing police officers to take their cruisers home - a proposal designed to help deter crime and attract recruits. But a new study recommending take-home cars has prompted criticism from county officials, who call it an inaccurate sales pitch for an unnecessary perk.
The report by County Auditor Brian J. Rowe says that as many as 358 patrol officers who live in the county would be eligible for the program. It suggests that those who choose not to participate be given $3,500 a year instead.
"The more visible, active and productive the police force, the more protected the people residing in or visiting the jurisdiction are likely to feel," according to the 40-page report, released last week.
But top aides to County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger say the report exaggerates the benefits of such a program and underestimates the cost.
"We have very serious problems with this report, both factually and with the conclusions that it draws," said Elise Armacost, a Ruppersberger spokeswoman.
Councilman Wayne M. Skinner, a Towson Republican, said he and Councilman John Olszewski Sr., a Dundalk Democrat, asked Rowe to analyze the costs of allowing police to take home cruisers.
"If the county needs to remain competitive with other jurisdictions in terms of recruiting police officers, the take-home car may be a cost-effective alternative," Skinner said.
Officers in Anne Arundel, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties and members of the state police take home cars if they live in the jurisdiction where they work, according to the report.
Cole Weston, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 4, which represents Baltimore County officers, said the report has been eagerly awaited by many of the younger officers. Take-home cars are limited to about 40 administrators and command-level staff who hold the rank of captain and above, he noted.
"Generally, for the younger officers who are assigned to patrol, this is something that's important to them," Weston said.
He said the recommendation to award $3,500 a year to officers who decide not to take home cruisers also would be a "major incentive" to potential recruits.
"That's something that's going to create some conversation, I'm sure," he said.
But county Budget Director Fred Homan said many of the report's cost estimates are wrong, including the one-time cost of $7.1 million to buy 192 new cars. Homan said the county would need 355 new cars, costing about $13 million.
While the report estimates $3.6 million annually in added maintenance and overtime costs, the figure is closer to $5.6 million, Homan said. In addition, 485 patrol officers would be eligible, not 358, he insisted.
"We can't figure out where they got their numbers," Homan said.
Rowe said that information on the number of officers, the number who live in the county and the number of cruisers required was supplied by county police statisticians.
He acknowledged the figures might be several months old but said they were the best numbers available, adding, "Perhaps things have changed; nothing remains static."