Reform could end a Baltimore crime wave
Baltimore is experiencing the worst wave of violent crime of any city in the United States. One day last month, in only 24 hours, six people were murdered. It’s as if mortal dice are rolled every day across the city’s streets. Stray bullets have injured a girl as young as 3 and a woman as old as 90. The homicide rate has gone up by almost 70 percent since 2014.
A city facing such shootings would ordinarily put more cops on the streets. But in Baltimore, it is both practically and politically impossible to meaningfully increase police presence. The police department is already understaffed. Over the past 15 years, the city has steadily cut the number of police positions in the budget. Even with fewer overall positions, the department has struggled to meet hiring quotas; on any given day, the department can field between 80 and 85 percent of its authorized force.
Meanwhile, growing violence has increased demand for policing, and the only way to generate more police hours with fewer officers is to have officers work more. Since 2013, overtime costs have roughly doubled. Soaring overtime looks bad for the department — especially after the FBI indicted seven Baltimore Police Department officers on suspicion of, among other things, brazen overtime fraud. There are officers taking advantage of the situation, but many others are simply overworked. A case in point: After the day six people were killed, Mayor Catherine Pugh (D) and Police Commissioner Kevin Davis extended officer shifts from 10 hours to 12 hours for a week. That was a prudent move that nevertheless aggravated overtime costs and sapped morale. To reduce overtime while meeting the demand for policing services, the police department must expand its force.
The department is taking smart steps to bring more people on board, including speeding up the hiring process, but in the long term, it will need to provide financial incentives for new recruits and veterans, such as housing and education benefits and better pay. Baltimore City residents and leaders are understandably skeptical of the police and unlikely to provide those new resources. As a recent Justice Department investigation highlighted, and organizations such as the No Boundaries Coalition in Baltimore have long argued, Baltimore police officers have an ugly track record of civil rights abuses and violence. These abuses came into the national spotlight in 2015 with the tragic death of Freddie Gray.
The result is a political stalemate in which everyone is unhappy. The police department is understaffed but spending too much on overtime. City leaders can neither defend spending more to rebuild the police force nor avoid paying the overtime bills. The public vacillates among anger at police abuses, outrage at overtime costs and concern over mounting violence.
City and state leaders can work together to break this deadlock. In past crises, Maryland State Police have taken over routine duties such as traffic patrol, freeing up city police officers for beat policing and other higher priorities. Putting more officers on the streets could help deter would-be shooters — and reassure scared people.
That’s a short-term solution. The longer-term challenge is to shape a police department that both respects civil rights and polices effectively. Recently, Baltimore City and the Justice Department signed a consent decree mandating new protocols and new training for the police department. The consent decree is an important step toward reform, but it will create challenges. Detroit took 11 years to meet the stipulations of its consent decree. Conforming to a consent decree cost Los Angeles $300 million.
Here is a new idea: Maryland could create a Baltimore police reform fund that would tie a stream of annual grants for the Baltimore Police Department to successful implementation of the consent decree. The grants would be dedicated exclusively to recruiting, training and retaining officers. Such a fund could motivate the Baltimore Police Department to execute the consent decree in a timely fashion. It could address the root of the department’s personnel problems while bringing down the unpopular overtime costs. By tying new money to police reforms, the fund could break the current political impasse and reassure state leaders and residents that public monies were being well spent.
As summer heats up, we must do something to bring the violence under control while helping the Baltimore Police Department rebuild for the future. Working together, city and state leaders can do both.
A sign in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood of Baltimore.