Crime Scenes: Politics of paying cops

Officers say city is turning its back on them; Baltimore says it isn't laying off police like other places

February 26, 2011|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

Mayors fired cops in towns and cities across New Jersey.

Baltimore is hiring 450 officers.

Murders, robberies and assaults are soaring in Camden and Newark, N.J., the police unions say.

Murders, robberies and assaults are down in Baltimore, the Police Department says.

New Jersey municipalities don't have enough officers to keep people safe, their union heads say.

Baltimore police are doing more with less, leaders here say. In fact, residents haven't seen crime this low in a quarter-century.

So why are Baltimore's officers at war with the mayor?

The police union is in federal court fighting the city over plans to cut contributions to its pension fund and other changes. The labor group has billboards looming over highways accusing the mayor and City Council of "turning their backs" on law enforcement. The union plans to protest a national convention of mayors being held in Baltimore in June, warning those who plan to attend that participating is akin to crossing a picket line.

Baltimore police officers rejected the latest contract proposal, and the city imposed a 2 percent pay cut in lieu of furloughs — which hit almost every other city department — and then compacted the reduction into six months, blaming the police union for prolonging negotiations and preventing the cut from being spread out over a year.

City leaders took away an early-settlement incentive — five extra vacation days.

The rhetoric is sharp. Morale is low.

The union complains that the mayor jumps in front of every available television camera to take credit for the drop in crime but fails to mention the budget cuts for "the good guys who take the bad guys with guns off the street."

Officials at City Hall point north, as if to say, "Be thankful you're not in New Jersey."

Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III's $352 million budget emerged virtually unscathed last year, but he had to fend off attempts to cut positions and keep valued crime-fighting tools, such as helicopters. He warned that further cuts could set back by 10 years the gains seen in reducing homicides and other crime.

But there's another $81 million to be cut in the coming fiscal year, and the department is 200 officers short of its full compliment of about 3,100. Bealefeld had to cut overtime and slow academy classes to save money, and has managed to hire 100 of the 450 new officers that were promised by the end of this year. Those cops are needed to keep pace with attrition and keep the force fully staffed. Bealefeld told a community group this month that he's spending more and more for overtime to keep up with needs.

In her State of the City speech, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said that "while cities like Newark and Camden endure gut-wrenching layoffs of public safety personnel, this coming fiscal year we will again maintain every single police officer position in the budget."

But police officers commenting on Internet bulletin boards and talking among themselves are carefully studying the words from police and city leaders as they draw comparisons between Newark (where the mayor fired 162 cops in November) and Baltimore.

With more budget reductions looming, is the mayor laying the groundwork to make even deeper cuts in police salaries and benefits seem more palatable?

The correlation between cops and crime is always a touchy one. Whenever crime spikes in one neighborhood or another, the instinctive response from worried police is to send in more officers. But as Bealefeld recently told residents in Northeast Baltimore, it's not how many cops you have, but how you use them. He repeatedly touts historic reductions in crime while curtailing arrests by the tens of thousands over the past few years.

In New Jersey, police union officials from large and small departments across the state testified this month in front of a state Senate committee that crime spiked after the layoffs. From early December through the end of January, they said, homicides in Newark increased by 50 percent, robberies went up 38 percent, auto thefts rose 40 percent and shootings 66 percent.

Robert F. Cherry, president of Baltimore's Fraternal Order of Police, says it is hypocritical for city officials "to point to outside jurisdictions that are struggling and say we should be happy with what we've got" because such comparisons were shot down in better times.

Cherry said he would rather restructure how police are deployed than hire more officers.

"I'm saying just having more cops on the street is not the answer," the former homicide detective said. "Keep the police we have and pay them like your life depends on it. … Let's see what we can do with the cops we have right now."

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