The clue to less violence may be more police

May 27, 2007|By DAN RODRICKS

What is the beef with police overtime in Baltimore, one of the most violent cities in the nation? There were three more fatal shootings Friday morning. Homicides are ahead of last year's pace by 10, and there were 263 nonfatal shooting victims through May 19. That's 73 more than last year at this time. And certain members of the Baltimore City Council, who get a sweet pay raise just in time for Christmas, have concerns about police compensation?

Get a clue, people.

The mayor of this blood-splattered city, who also gets a nice raise this year, says, "The violence is unacceptable, and it has to stop," then announces that she will start allowing police overtime again, but just a teeny-weeny bit so that - what? - taxpayers don't get upset?

Who's getting upset? Get a clue, mayor.

The city of Baltimore remains one of the most violent in the nation. We can't stop the bleeding. The homicide rate is not as bad as it was during the miserable Schmoke years, but it's still bad, particularly when you measure it per capita. Homicides and non-fatal shootings have a profound effect on a city - its citizens live in a state of heightened fear or bleak resignation, and outsiders think we're Hellhole, Md. 21202.

Do you suppose there's a correlation between Baltimore's chronic, drug-related criminal violence and, say, the lack of corporate headquarters here? Maybe it's not the shortage of hotel rooms that keeps ours from becoming a thriving convention town. Maybe it has something to do with the killings.

And maybe the killings continue because we don't have enough police officers or because the administration and the City Council have pulled back overtime for those we do have.

Just a guess.

We don't have enough police officers. The operative number for budgeted police slots is 3,200. Fact is, the city only employs about 2,900 officers.

"I'm told that, actually, they only budgeted for 3,118 officers," says Paul Blair Jr., a 39-year veteran of the city police force and head of the police union. "So, that's 82 positions they didn't budget for. Now, the last number I saw was 2,932 officers on staff. But 50 of those are cadets - that is, city employees who are learning to be police officers, and they're not used on the street."

And it's the street where, last I checked, police were most needed, if there's to be any meaningful and lasting impact on the drug trafficking and the gun violence. (They also have to go to court to assist in the prosecution of the people they arrest.)

Friday, after the spate of shootings across the city, we drove around East Baltimore. I saw a uniformed officer and one in plainclothes arresting a man and woman along Monument Street. There was a cop helping a handcuffed woman into his car at Greenmount and Mura. Along the side streets north of North Avenue, there's been gang-related violence lately; we found a cop on foot, talking on a cell phone, at Barclay and 23rd.

It was good to see this kind of police presence in neighborhoods where the majority of people are just trying to scratch out an existence.

During the O'Malley administration, when Ed Norris was commissioner, police units would flood a zone in an effort to crack down on drug sales, gang activity and spurts in non-fatal shootings.

Was it a perfect system? No.

Did O'Malley's endless ArrestFest produce a lot of cases that prosecutors refused to take? Yes.

Did it have an impact on the violence in certain neighborhoods? By every measure, yes.

Did it cost money? Did it require the city to pay cops millions upon millions of dollars in overtime?

Yes, and yes.

Did I ever hear a fellow citizen bellyaching about too much overtime for cops?

No.

Hey, if there's fraud in the overtime, the Police Department and the city auditor need to root it out.

But, if the lion's share of the overtime constitutes compensation for the lack of officers on the streets, then what's the complaint?

We can't recruit enough new police officers. We can't retain enough.

The starting salary is $39,103. That was the median household income in the United States in 1995.

On the top side, a veteran police officer makes about $57,000 a year.

That's exactly what Baltimore City Council members will make come December for their part-time jobs - $57,000, up from their present $48,000.

The mayor gets a raise, too, from $125,000 to $148,000. And, as The Sun reported yesterday, the mayor, who faces election in September, has increased the size of her staff and given salary increases to dozens of employees since taking office in January.

The payroll of the mayor's staff is up 15 percent.

The mayor's budget proposes a 4 percent increase for police salaries. It sets aside only $732,600 for overtime - a fraction of what has been spent in recent years. This year, for example, the city tapped its surplus to cover roughly $20 million in unexpected police overtime costs.

If the mayor and council members think they're going to score points with voters by pinching pennies on police, they are wrong.

We don't have enough officers, and we don't pay the ones we have enough.

One of the most violent cities in the nation - and politicians want to make an issue out of how much we pay our police.

Get a clue.

Men and women with criminal records may obtain information about re-entry programs and jobs by contacting columnist Dan Rodricks at 410-332-6166 or at dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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