Housing police force may be eliminated

City authority facing $11 million budget gap

August 17, 2004|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

Seeking to close a budget gap, the city housing authority is considering the elimination of its 70-member police force.

"There are no good choices," Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano said. "Do you lay off plumbers and carpenters ... or do you cut in areas of security? We've already made significant cuts in the area of resident services."

Graziano said that if the housing police force is eliminated, residents in city housing would still get protection, most likely from the Baltimore Police Department.

In recent weeks, the commission has laid off 75 employees and eliminated 84 vacant positions, Graziano said. Those moves plugged a little more than half of an $11 million budget gap the agency attributes to a loss in federal funding.

Graziano has said more cuts are coming, prompting about a dozen housing officers to apply for jobs at the city Police Department, according to Baltimore police officials.

"It would be surprising if people weren't looking," housing spokesman David Tillman said.

The Housing Authority of Baltimore City has about 1,300 employees and a $188 million budget for this fiscal year - about $12 million less than last year. It oversees, and its officers patrol, about 13,000 public housing units. It also supervises about 10,300 Section 8 housing vouchers.

The 18-year-old housing authority police force is composed of about 50 officers in addition to dispatchers and a command staff, Graziano said. Nine to 10 officers comprise a patrol shift, he said. Four years ago, the housing police force had about 110 members.

Graziano said the federal government, through its funding decisions, has sent a message that housing authorities should get out of the policing business, as they have in Chicago and other cities.

He mentioned, as an example, a recently expired federal grant that paid for nine officers. The officers remain on the job because other money has been found to pay for their positions.

"We have really had no choice but to reach out to the Baltimore City Police Department," Graziano said. "We are in discussions with them at this time about how we can assure our residents get appropriate protection."

City police spokesman Matt Jablow declined to comment on those discussions.

Graziano said that if the housing police is eliminated, residents will not be left without protection. "There will not be a void," he said.

There has long been talk about eliminating the oft-maligned housing police department and handing over its duties to the city Police Department.

In 2000, state legislators considered a bill to do just that, but it never came to fruition.

Later that year, the officers in the force voted no confidence in then-Chief Hezekiah Bunch, prompting a review of the department. And in 2001, the agency lost its accreditation, putting some of its funding in jeopardy. It has since regained that accreditation.

Graziano declined to set a timetable for cost-cutting.

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