Auxiliary unit asks to do more

Some officials unaware of volunteer police

August 13, 2007|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,Sun reporter

The public sees them when they direct traffic at big ball games, when they halt parades so cars can pass and when they attend city festivals.

But members of the city's all-volunteer auxiliary police unit say they used to do much more, including walking foot patrols with sworn officers. Many are now saying they do not get respect from the department and they are not being used effectively.

"They want to be able to do things that they are trained to do," said Auxiliary Col. Richard M. Terry, head of the auxiliary unit. "And do things in a way that would allow the department to put more officers on the streets."

Wennie Gibson-Watts, who has been an auxiliary officer for 10 years, added: "We want to be back on the streets doing quality-of-life issues. We want to help make things safer for Baltimore."

Any whiff of underused police resources is attracting attention this year, with homicides and shootings on the increase. Mayor Sheila Dixon and her political opponent, Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., have both spoken about a need to have more uniformed officers in the city's neighborhoods. And the mayor wants to keep a tight rein on overtime.

Meanwhile, the Police Department has gone to great lengths to put more officers on the street, ordering some detectives to walk foot patrols.

Sterling Clifford, a Baltimore police spokesman, denied allegations that auxiliary police are underused.

"It is up to the police officers who supervise the auxiliary police to determine what auxiliary police can do safely," he said. "The experienced police commanders who run that unit are in the best position to determine what is necessary and what puts them at risk."

There are about three dozen auxiliary officers. In addition to directing traffic, they perform administrative duties in the police districts. The Police Department's general order says that "foot patrol shall be the primary mode of operation of the auxiliary." Clifford said the department is in the process of rewriting that order.

The unit is so low on the city's radar screen that City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake was unaware that the unit existed and offered a resolution in June to consider creating a volunteer unit that would supplement police. She later learned that one existed.

Terry and Gibson-Watts testified at a City Hall hearing Thursday about problems raised by auxiliary members.

Rawlings-Blake did not attend, but she was approached by one auxiliary police officer at an event who explained some of the frustrations. "It wasn't a surprise to me that the auxiliary officers wanted to play a bigger a role," she said.

Volunteer auxiliary officers in other jurisdictions have more power. Sgt. Randy Brashears, who is in charge of Baltimore County's 34 auxiliary officers, said his charges have limited arrest powers, respond in patrol cars to nonemergency calls, write traffic tickets and verify home addresses for registered sex offenders.

In Howard County, 18 auxiliary officers have use of special police cars and are sent out to relieve officers who are tied up on routine assignments. "From patrol officers all the way up to the chief, they love these guys," said Howard County Lt. Charles Jacobs. "They pick up all those calls [that] take away from the officers picking up more serious calls."

Terry, the city's auxiliary's volunteer commander, said he would like to create an auxiliary rapid-response squad that could go out to emergencies, such as the recent First Mount Olive Free Will Baptist Church fire, where, he said, sworn officers were tied up for hours directing traffic.

Terry, at yesterday's hearing, noted that one squad of officers recently had to take reports when a large number of cars were smashed on a single block. He said that the auxiliary is trained to write police reports -- and could have handled that work.

Paul M. Blair Jr., the city's police union president, agrees that the city's auxiliary force could be used more effectively, but he draws the line at taking reports. "The minute we allow other people to take police reports, then we need less police," he said.

Part of the issue with the city's auxiliary unit appears to stem from conflict between the auxiliary members and their supervisor, Sgt. Robert Gibson Jr., a sworn officer.

Terry and other members of the unit say the problems go much deeper. Terry made a list of the unit's concerns in June.

Among other complaints, the four-page memo says that the unit is not getting needed training, its sequence numbers are not recognized in the commutations system, its members have not received insurance beneficiary forms and they have been put at risk because the department took away their handcuffs. An unsigned copy of that memo was obtained by The Sun.

Clifford, the police spokesman, said that most of the issues in the memo have been addressed. But he said that the officers would not be allowed to carry handcuffs because they do not have arrest powers.

"There has been a natural give and take with the auxiliary police," Clifford said.

In two letters sent to all auxiliary members, Gibson, the supervisor, repeated the following line: "Don't allow your issues to fester, allowing them to become rumor, tall-tales and fables. It is my desire that we continue to work together in harmony, without confusion or negativity."

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

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