Crimes and manpower

May 03, 2006

The crime-averse O'Malley administration had to admit last week that, so far this year, crime is up over last year. The 4 percent overall increase represented upticks in nearly all categories of crime - including murder - and in all but three of the city's nine police districts. That's pretty much an across-the-board sweep, and some districts saw double-digit spikes in violent crimes.

The numbers are, of course, worrisome, but a snapshot of crime in February showed even steeper increases. In other words, crime is up, but less so than earlier in the year. Police say efforts to map the shifts in criminal activity and target suspects account for the difference.

But the real concern should be the Police Department's manpower shortage - it is operating with about 250 fewer officers than its designated strength. About half of those spots are truly vacant; the others can't be filled because officers have been suspended or are on medical leave or military deployment.

Add to that situation the department's difficulty in hiring qualified applicants, and there's no quick fix. Consider this sorry fact: Out of about 2,000 applicants last year, the department managed to hire only 157. Many wash out after criminal background checks and because they can't meet tough standards on prior drug use.

The bottom line is that police districts are short-staffed.

Baltimore's sprawling Northern District is down 30 patrol officers, The Sun's Gus G. Sentementes reported, and the area had a 23 percent increase in violent crime between January and mid-April, compared with the same period last year. The Southeastern District is short 21 officers. Property crimes there are up 27 percent over this time last year. And residents are feeling it.

Police officials have tried to fill gaps with returning retirees and administrative officers who volunteer to return to street patrols. But they can't be substitutes for new career officers. As the summer approaches, a usually busy time for police, the department will have to use its officers creatively and pay others overtime to drive crime down. That may be a struggle, but those increased crime stats have to head south.

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