Police deferring purchase of jackets

$900,000 proposal shelved until 2002

April 26, 2001|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

In the face of citywide budget cuts and planned layoffs, the Baltimore Police Department has shelved a plan to spend as much as $900,000 on black leather jackets for its 3,000-plus sworn officers.

Commissioner Edward T. Norris and a number of patrol officers tested different models of leather jackets during the winter. And in the past week, top police and union officials said in interviews they believed Norris was leaning toward making a first order for jackets this year as an image-enhancer for the force.

But in an interview Tuesday night, Norris said he was deferring purchases until at least July 2002, saying the department had more important priorities - and this was not the right time to worry about image.

"It seems nice to have but not crucial to the mission," said Norris, who had suggested the idea of switching to leather jackets. "The city's having such a tough time financially, it just didn't seem like it would be appropriate to be buying leather jackets at this point."

The cost of buying the jackets for the force would have been as much as $900,000 over the next three years, at a time when Mayor Martin O'Malley is planning tax increases and layoffs, and most city departments are searching for ways to cut costs.

The current police-issue jackets, made with Gore-Tex, cost about half as much. But police officials say leather jackets would last longer and be a money-saver in the long run. Norris's main contention is that the leather jackets will be a morale and image booster.

"We want to make a statement that it's a new day," Norris said. "It's a message to the public that things are changing."

The model Norris favors is similar to one used by the Indianapolis police force, a waist-length black coat manufactured by Taylor's Leatherwear of Tullahoma, Tenn.

"These are not fashion coats. They're tough coats," said David K. Patton, owner of Taylor's, which he said specializes in heavy-duty jackets made for police forces and other uniformed personnel.

Patton says police from many departments in the country, including Baltimore's motorcycle unit, have Taylor's jackets. He said he rarely has to replace one. "They could drag it behind their car and get 10 years out of it," he said.

The Police Department would seek competitive bids for the leather jackets. The "Indianapolis" jacket retails for $350, Patton said, but he estimated that the model could be bought in bulk by Baltimore for less than $300 apiece.

By comparison, the department's current jackets, manufactured by Blauer, a Massachusetts-based company, cost an average of $156 each. This fiscal year, which ends June 30, police have spent $75,000 to replace 484 worn-out Blauer jackets, police officials said.

Department officials said they have discussed spreading the purchases of leather jackets over three years, at a cost of as much as $300,000 a year, to outfit nearly 3,200 sworn officers.

"If we could do a third of the force this year, a third next year and a third the following year, and we keep up with our new hires, we could stay within budget that way," Deputy Commissioner Bert Shirey said last week, before Norris told The Sun he was delaying the purchase.

"I think overspending the budget on items like this next year is simply not an option," Shirey said. "We wouldn't even try."

In the past year, the Police Department has been spending well over budget.

Fighting crime has been O'Malley's top priority since his first day in office in December 1999, and spending has reflected that: The mayor approved last year a three-year, $30 million pay raise for police; he found millions of dollars this year to buy four helicopters for the department; and in the past year, the department ran up millions of dollars in overtime.

The result is a Police Department that was projected this year to be nearly $16 million over budget by the end of the fiscal year. The department also is slated for a $15.6 million general fund increase next year, to $226 million, while O'Malley has sought deep cuts from nearly every other city agency.

Violent crime rates went down substantially in the city last year, with homicides falling below 300 in a year for the first time in more than a decade. Still, some City Council members, while not openly criticizing O'Malley's priorities, have said the mayor has given a blank check to the police.

"With all these departments going through layoffs ... and having big agencies like the Police Department worried about fashion and style, it doesn't seem right," said Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., a West Baltimore Democrat who is chairman of the council's Taxation Committee, when told of the leather jackets proposal.

O'Malley has proposed an increase in the city's income tax and is planning to lay off as many as 377 workers.

This month, Norris told top city officials at a police budget meeting that he recognized the department's responsibility to keep spending down. "We will do our part. We will make sure to manage our budget responsibly," he said.

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