Re­form could end a Bal­ti­more crime wave

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - The writer was di­rec­tor of the White House Task­force for Bal­ti­more City un­der Pres­i­dent Barack Obama.

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.

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