Housing police to disband

city force to assume duties

Agency seeking to close an $11 million budget gap

September 25, 2004|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

The 65-officer Housing Authority of Baltimore City police force will be disbanded next month, and the responsibility for protecting the city's 13,000 public housing units will be shifted to the city Police Department, Mayor Martin O'Malley announced yesterday.

The city police will not add positions to their force but will assign officers to a housing patrol unit of up to 40 officers. That unit will grow to as many as 70 officers, police said.

"Baltimore City police will respond to your calls," O'Malley said. "Public safety services will be maintained."

The move marks the last of several recent personnel cuts made by the housing authority, said Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano. Before yesterday's announcement, the authority had laid off 75 employees and cut 84 vacant positions as part of an effort to close an $11 million budget gap. Yesterday, O'Malley repeatedly attributed the shortage to federal cuts.

The announcement was made hours before a housing officer witnessed a West Baltimore shooting, chased the suspected gunman and shot him. The suspect was expected to live, city police said.

Residents in Latrobe Homes, a 701-unit low-rise complex in East Baltimore, said yesterday that they will miss regularly seeing the housing police.

Christine Jones, 45, said the development is a dangerous place. Her 2-year-old granddaughter has seen people get shot, she said. Jones said she is worried that the city police will take longer to respond to calls. The housing authority officers are prompt, she said. "They talk to the groups on the corner," Jones said. "They do a pretty good job. They really do."

The housing authority employs about 1,300 people and has a $188 million budget for this fiscal year - about $12 million less than last year. Besides managing 35 public housing developments, it also supervises about 10,300 Section 8 housing vouchers.

Its 18-year-old police force consists of 65 sworn law enforcement officers, including command staff, and 14 civilian employees. City officials said the elimination of the housing police will save money by reducing duplication, such as separate dispatch systems.

The officers were told yesterday that they will receive 30-day notices Friday.

Yesterday's announcement revealed what had been a poorly kept secret. Housing officers have been preparing for the layoffs for weeks. At least 40 housing officers have applied for jobs at the city Police Department, and about 20 have been accepted.

They are filling vacant positions that would have been filled anyway, police officials said. Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark said he will rely on the expertise of those officers to build his public housing patrol unit.

Clark and city officials said the added responsibility will not strain Baltimore police for several reasons.

While housing authority police receive about 25,000 calls for service each year, officials said, city police receive more than 1 million.

City police respond to calls in public housing between midnight and 8 a.m., when housing authority police are not working, Clark said.

Also, because the city imploded its last family-occupied public housing tower in 2001, there is less need for officers to patrol inside buildings, city officials said.

O'Malley said security in the buildings will improve because cameras are being installed in public housing developments. He did not say when the cameras will be in place.

Residents will also benefit, Clark said, from the additional support services provided by city police - its canine unit, mounted police unit and other specialized groups.

But departing housing authority police, who declined to be identified because they feared reprisals, questioned whether the services they provide will be maintained. For example, they said, they accompany managers to evictions and frequently check vacant buildings for squatters.

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