Trying to hold crime down while cutting the police budget

March 26, 2009|By PETER HERMANN

There was a time right here in Baltimore when police didn't worry about money.

For an entire summer, cops spent $300,000 a week in overtime to put two officers in every patrol car. City officers got the highest pay raise in their history - $30 million over three years, boosting one of the state's lowest-paying agencies to parity with the suburbs. The mayor got a standing ovation in the union hall.

It was 2000 and 2001, before the attacks of Sept. 11 that would bring a flood of federal dollars into Baltimore, and before people moved back to the city, helping fill long-suffering tax coffers.The mayor, Martin O'Malley, was riding the pro-cop, get-tough-on-crime message that carried him to City Hall.

"I got to do a lot of things," the police commissioner at the time, Edward T. Norris, told me. "I realize that other agencies had to suffer because I got a lot of money, but we knew if we didn't solve the crime problem, nothing else was going to matter because no one was going to want to live here."

What a difference a few years make.

The city, facing a $65 million shortfall, has curtailed overtime, might limit or eliminate raises in the next union contract, has cut programs such as the Police Athletic League and tuition assistance for officers, grounded the marine unit over the winter, ordered detectives to walk foot patrol to help fill slots and now faces difficulties maintaining the pension fund.

Here is how police brass toeing the City Hall budget line describe the situation: "We've shown that we can manage our overtime budget and still have a reduction in crime." That was Deputy Police Commissioner Deborah Owens this month at a City Council hearing, noting that overtime dropped from $35 million in 2006 to $21 million last year, even as the city recorded the fewest homicides in 20 years.

Robert Cherry, president of the city police union, is frustrated that the police commissioner is not taking a public stand against budget cuts that the union chief says will affect efforts to fight crime and make it difficult to build on last year's successes.

Says Cherry: "The crime reductions we just saw were on the backs of the hard work of the men and women of this police department. They deserve something more then commemorative pins; they deserve something they can put in their pockets."

Answers police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi: "It's definitely too early to talk about that. But I want to remind everybody the state of the economy this country is in. Baltimore is not the only city that is going through hardship." He noted that $7.5 million was added to the department's overtime budget "to continue the momentum of the crime fight. The city's priority is public safety, but we're going to manage with what we have."

Gary McLhinney, the former union chief who is now a labor negotiator for a law firm that represents cops, noted that for O'Malley, "The police was his number one, two, three and four priority. It was everything to him."

McLhinney says Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III is "every bit a cop's cop as Norris was" and well-respected by the troops but is stuck trying to motivate them under a budget crunch, a recession and a mayor under indictment. "It's got to drive him crazy that he can't deliver for them."

For the police union, it is a never-ending cycle of despair - less money, fewer cops and more crime. City Hall says that axiom has already been proved wrong, that crime went down even with less money spent.

As Norris told me, "Things are always much easier when the money is flowing."

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