More officers in the city's Northern District are walking the beat or patrolling on bikes this month as part of a pilot program to get officers more engaged in their communities.
The new deployment began Monday, affecting only the day shift, and will last about two weeks, according to Deputy Major Dennis L. Smith. It reduces the number of patrol vehicles from 19 to 11 in a district that contains some of Baltimore's most affluent neighborhoods but some troubled communities as well. The balance of the officers are being dispatched to foot patrols and bicycle details.
"A big part of the mayor and the commissioner's crime plan is community engagement and building partnerships," Smith said. "You can't do it behind the wheel of a car - you've got to get out and talk to people."
The president of the police union is criticizing the initiative, saying it makes fewer officers available to respond quickly to serious incidents and potentially leaves officers vulnerable by reducing the number of backup units. He said it amounts to a change in working conditions, which are covered by the union contract.
"Officers are out there knowing that once it gets a little busy, there are no backups available to them," said union President Paul M. Blair Jr. "If you're on a mountain bike, how fast can you pedal to get to someone calling for help?"
But Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, who signed off on the program, believes foot patrols are necessary to regain the community's trust.
"We want [residents] to talk to their post officers," he said last week in a broader interview about police strategies. "It used to be a PR tactic to smooth feathers, but we are now really working to get post officers engaged - not to spin a message, but to solve problems."
Smith said the initiative is a work in progress. Originally, the plan called for three vehicles per sector, with two officers assigned to one of the vehicles. The officers requested that the two-person car be broken up, with the extra officer assigned to a fourth car, so that more vehicles would be on the street. The change was implemented the next day.
He said the bike details have been particularly popular, allowing officers to weave through areas that are inaccessible in a motor vehicle while moving quicker than on foot.
On a street corner in Remington, where there have been two homicides and a handful of shootings this year, Officers Tivon Green and Karl Paige II sat on gray BMW mountain bikes wearing helmets and shorts. They said the bike details allow them to come up on suspicious activity without being noticed until the last second.
Along Greenmount Avenue near 33rd Street, Officer Eric Hinson walked down the sidewalk, and store managers waved as he popped his head into their businesses. He was never more than a block or two away from his parked patrol car.
"It's nice," said Lakesha Fedd, 20, who works at the Mr. Nifty Cleaners. "We need that on Greenmount Avenue - there's always something going on."
Smith said the plan is flexible. A man was shot twice in the back about noon Tuesday in the 900 block of Belgian Ave. in the Pen Lucy neighborhood. The victim had been visiting someone there when an unknown suspect opened fire.
Smith said officers on the special details returned to patrol vehicles to respond to the incident or cover other areas. When things calmed down, they returned to their original assignments.
At the end of the two-week trial, Smith said, he will analyze crime numbers and distribute surveys to officers and residents to gauge their reaction. A drop in calls to police would be telling, he said.
"We're hoping a lot of 911 or 311 calls will be abated because the community will say, 'I know my foot officer or bike officer will be around here shortly,'" Smith said.