Baltimore police irked at budget questions

Few queries to be raised by City Council have to do with budget

May 12, 2010|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore police commanders are scheduled to talk about their dire budget this evening at City Hall, hoping to stave off cuts that threaten the jobs of hundreds of officers. The commissioner has warned that slashing his spending could erase achievements in crime reduction.

But it appears that members of the Budget and Appropriations Committee want to talk about nearly everything but Budget and Appropriations.

The committee's chief aide e-mailed a list of 14 questions to the police commissioner Tuesday to help him prepare for the hearing. It sent police officials, who had spent weeks researching fiscal notes and poring over spreadsheets, scrambling to come up with a new set of answers.

Here's what committee members want to know:

•How many top-ranking officers are minorities?

•How many minority (top-ranking) officers have been terminated since July 2008?

•Is it true that the two Chief positions previously held by African-Americans have been eliminated?

•Please provide a racial and gender breakdown for the Police Department. (A broader version of this question: Please provide a racial breakdown for the Accident Investigation Unit.)

•Currently, how many officers are suspended with pay?

•Does the Police Department have the technology to provide effective constituent services as well as locate and identify violent offenders?

Do police really have constituents?

To be fair, there are four questions that do deal with money — "how overtime is disseminated" and whether a four-day workweek being tried in one police district "is effective and does it produce cost savings?" And if yes, "Why hasn't it been implemented citywide?" (Note to council: That experiment ended when officers got a new contract and a new schedule in January.)

A third asks about a contract for self-defense training, and the fourth wants to know what happens to federal money given to agencies participating in a seat belt campaign.

But in general, the questions have top Baltimore police officials privately scratching their heads, wondering why elected representatives would want to ask these questions — even if perfectly legitimate — at a time when so many other important questions need to be asked.

Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III has warned that as many as 300 police officers could lose their jobs, the helicopter unit and some investigatory groups would be eliminated, and contractual employees would be laid off. He said cutting $16 million from his $121 million spending plan would make city residents less safe. "We estimate it would take 10 years for the city to recover from a blow like that," he has said.

Critics have suggested that no mayor would cut police in a dangerous city just now achieving a drop in violent crime and a 33-year low in homicides, and that the threats are a ruse to get voters to support more user fees and maybe even new taxes.

Top commanders wouldn't comment publicly on the committee's questionnaire, but privately they say they're upset because they don't deem the topics relevant to the important discussion for which they had prepared.

City Council members do have a penchant for using budget hearings to ask a broad range of questions about the agencies whose heads are before them. A hearing Tuesday on the city's cable office, scheduled for 30 minutes, went on for more than two hours.

The chairwoman of the budget committee, Belinda Conaway, defended the questions as "very relevant to the operations of the Police Department." She said the questions about the racial makeup of command and enforcement units go to the heart of staffing and whether the top ranks are bloated.

"I wonder what their problem is in providing the information?" Conaway said. "If this created such a problem for them, why didn't they reach out to me?"

While police must avoid criticizing politicians in public, there's nothing stopping the head of the police union, Robert F. Cherry, from sounding off.

"I would hope that the City Council members would not use this budget hearing for political grandstanding," Cherry said, "and instead ask the real questions that matter to homeowners and residents of this city — how can we further give police the resources, the money and the tools to continue the good fight?"

Cherry said the council should be commending beat cops "who have brought this city to [low] levels of crime that haven't been seen in decades."

The council committee should not shirk from asking tough questions and demanding hard answers. They should hold the police accountable. But the topic today is funding and whether the city's police force will have enough of it to keep residents safe.

Said one top police official: "Let's talk about money."

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