Baltimore's mayor and police chief promised Thursday to hire 450 new officers by the end of next year, an accelerated recruitment drive aimed at eliminating a personnel shortage just as the department is making headway on reducing crime.
The announcement at the start of a community walk in Northwest Baltimore's Howard Park neighborhood came days after Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III warned that an unexpected number of officers quit or retired in June, leaving his 3,119-member department short 106 officers.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the police agency will hire more consultants to screen applicants and conduct background checks on more than 120 applicants who are waiting to hear if they've been accepted for training.
In addition, officials said, budget constraints that cut the number of police academies from five or six a year to three this year will not carry over into 2011.
The mayor said there is enough money to fund five or six classes with 40 to 60 recruits each next year, enough to hire 350 officers in 2011. In addition, one class has already graduated this year, another begins today and a third is scheduled for fall, which could bring the number of officers hired this year to about 100.
City officials did not provide specifics about where the money will come from; two of this year's academy classes were funded by federal grants.
Rawlings-Blake said she worked to avoid laying off police officers as she raised taxes and fees to overcome a $121 million deficit, and now she wants to make sure the Police Department can fill all its budgeted positions.
"This new plan will allow us to keep pace with the attrition rate," the mayor told reporters on the neighborhood walk, which began on Liberty Heights Avenue.
The mayor strongly denied that the 42 officers who left last month — far more than the 17 who departed in June 2009 or the 20 who quit or retired in June 2008 — did so because of changes in the pension system that took effect July 1 and increased officers' contributions and the number of years they need to work before retiring.
She said that only three of the officers who quit or retired last month were affected by the changes in the retirement system — necessary to fill a $65 million shortfall and make the fund profitable. The police union has objected to the plan and has filed a lawsuit in federal court accusing the city of reneging on employment contracts.
Rawlings-Blake also said that the officers who retired in June averaged 25.7 years on the force, indicating that the changes in the pension system raising the years needed to retire from 20 to 25 for employees with 15 or fewer years of experience was irrelevant in those cases.
But police union president Robert F. Cherry called the new recruitment plan "a bunch of fluff" and said he stands by his statements that many if not most of the officers who left in June did so because of concerns over their pensions. He said even officers not directly affected might have bailed in order to cash out before paying the increased contributions and because of the uncertainty of the city's budget.
Cherry said the pension debate, coupled with the city's financial problems, has put police morale at rock bottom, and he criticized the mayor for repeatedly reciting favorable crime statistics without backing the officers "who made those numbers happen."
"The feeling of the average patrolman on the street is not too good," he said. "They do not feel the mayor is backing them on every level — salary, benefits and politically."
Bealefeld praised the mayor for getting the city and his department through the budget crisis without layoffs, and he said that this hiring plan has been in the works for the past three weeks, when officials realized that an unusually high number of officers left in June.
He said district commanders are resorting to overtime to ensure there are adequate patrol officers protecting neighborhoods. "We need the help, and we welcome the infusion of manpower," Bealefeld said.
The Rev. Don Stanley of the New All Saints Roman Catholic Church on Liberty Heights Avenue joined the city officials on their walk through Howard Park.
"We do feel the shortage of officers," he said. "There's been a lot of slippage in what you'd call traditional policing." The priest said he is talking about enforcement of "the little things" — quality of life crimes that include loitering, littering and drinking in public.
Now, he said of officers, their "eyes are blind to those things."
The question will be whether the new hiring plan can keep up with attrition. This year, police records show that 78 officers were hired and 131 officers left the force. This is the first year since 2006 in which attrition outpaced hiring. In 2005, records show, 338 officers left while only 188 were hired.