Police short on cars

Department says transportation woes hinder crime-fighting

`Flex' units constrained

Officials say they might ask city for more vehicles

November 19, 2001|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

A key part of the Baltimore Police Department's new crime-fighting strategy appears to be running into a problem - a shortage of cars.

Police officers, commanders and union officials say they are having a difficult time targeting high-crime areas with new "flex" squads of officers because they do not have enough patrol and unmarked cars to do the job.

The number of available cars is critical because the department has begun redeploying its forces to combat a spike in killings and shootings.

The department has eliminated three or four two-man patrol cars per shift in each district. That frees up 18 to 24 officers in each district to join "flex" units, which commanders can dispatch to high-crime areas.

But some of those officers are being sent into those areas in cars with four or five officers each - diluting the effectiveness of the "flexible" patrols, commanders and officers say.

Adding to the problem, police also are trying to figure out ways to make annual "holiday patrols" effective in each district. On Friday, police officials dispatched 60 officers who hold desk jobs to the streets until year's end to help prevent robberies and burglaries associated with the holidays.

Commanders acknowledge they are having some trouble getting the new deployment strategy to work, though they said they would eventually nail it down.

"We haven't had enough [cars] to spread [officers] out the way I had hoped," said Deputy Police Commissioner Bert F. Shirey. "We don't want to have officers four to a car with high crime. Then we can't spread them out enough to get maximum effect."

Police officials said they are conducting a review of the department's needs and might ask city officials to give them more vehicles.

About 70 to 80 new patrol cars are sitting on a city lot on Dickman Street in South Baltimore. The city purchased those cars in bulk. Over time, the department will trade in beat-up cars for the ones in the lot. "If the review reveals a need to increase the fleet, we'll make a request," said Dan O'Connor, head of the department's human resource unit, which oversees the department's vehicles.

The department has 654 patrol cars and 314 unmarked cars spread among the city's nine districts, detective units and 3,100 officers.

Officers and union officials have long complained about a lack of cars. Some detectives have complained that they are stuck in district stations unable to investigate cases because their units do not have enough cars. Several said they were forced to hitch rides with patrol officers to shooting scenes.

Several officers and supervisors said that if a few cars break down, whole deployment strategies come to a standstill.

"This redeployment is going to exacerbate the problem," said Gary McLhinney, president of the local police union. "We've always heard complaints about cars. ... I assume while the cars are sitting there [on the city lot] their warranties are running out. Those cars need to come out."

Police officials say they think they will get more cars if they request them from City Hall, providing they can prove the additional vehicles will help reduce crime.

Mayor Martin O'Malley has significantly boosted the Police Department's budget and officers' salaries, and police officials have been able to purchase high-tech crime-fighting tools. Officers' salaries were increased up to 33 percent over three years last year.

O'Malley also recently gave the department an additional $1 million to fund overtime activities associated with attacking high-crime areas.

Although the complaints about cars are spread fairly evenly throughout the department, some officers and commanders say they have plenty of vehicles. Some even said that officers' driving skills are largely to blame for any shortage - as of Nov. 12, officers have gotten into 491 accidents this year, a 15 percent increase over last year in the same time period.

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