Q: Why are so few police officers out on the streets today?
A: Because they’re busy serving the public.
Q: And when are they serving the public?
A: Often between 4 a.m. and 8 a.m., when 911 calls drop to their lowest levels.
These and other bureaucratic riddles greeted the City Council’s Public Safety Committee last night as they tried to parse the reasons why homicides and non-fatal shootings are spiking in Baltimore.
The sparsely-attended hearing took testimony only from police brass and a consultant who helped craft last week’s strategic policing report. Their answers confounded, infuriated, mystified and finally overwhelmed committee members, several of whom wound up thanking Commissioner Anthony W. Batts.
“I am pleased with the job you are doing,” said committee chairman Warren Branch of the crime-infested 13th District.
Happy to take the opening offered, Bats responded in a wounded tone: “We take shots. We get beat up on. . . I’m out there seven days a week, and we will continue to give our all to the community. I’d like to applaud [the command officers] for what they are doing.”
The sole standout to the end-of-hearing cheerleading was City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, who asked a series of aggressive questions about overtime and staffing strategies and repeatedly told Batts, “I’m not happy.”
Young’s unhappiness encompassed last week’s $285,000 consultants report, which Young faulted for not offering a straightforward road map on how to improve crime fighting.
“We’ve done all these reports,” he complained, but during his 15 years on the Council he has yet to see safer streets where he lives in East Baltimore. (As president of the Board of Estimates, Young approved the contract to Strategic Policy Partnership and The Bratton Group – the highest of five bids received by the city.)
Last night, Young told a scrum of TV newscasters that the report could have been done in-house at less cost to taxpayers, forgetting to mention his “aye” vote last April.
Overwhelming by 911 Calls
One of the report’s consultants explained why so few patrol officers actually patrol anymore. Peter Bellmio said police are faced with so many 911 calls – 644,031 in 2012 – that the officers don’t have the time to get out on the street.
Baltimore’s call volume is consistent with a population of 1 million – or nearly double its current number of inhabitants. “Fifty-two percent of their time is on calls,” Bellmio said of patrol staff, adding that the BCPD has become the party of last resort when other city services fail to help individuals in crisis or despair.
Bellmio’s number-crunching uncovered some crucial staffing issues, however.
First, the call volume between districts varies widely. Northeastern District got nearly twice the volume of 911 calls as Western District (95,597 versus 59,493) – a reflection of a district map that has not changed in more than 30 years, even as inner-city districts (Western and Eastern) have undergone substantial depopulation.
The other big problem is deployment. The police insist on fully staffing all districts through all shifts, which makes for imbalances that strike particularly hard on weekends and during the evening.
Bellmio produced statistics showing that calls for service reach a low of 20 calls or fewer per hour between 3 and 6 a.m., especially on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
But calls spike to more than 120 an hour on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.
As a result, police are consistently overstaffed by as many as 100 officers between 4 a.m. and 8 a.m., but understaffed by 50-100 officers between 4 p.m. and midnight – the very time of the day when crime and violence peak. (See chart.)
Commissioner Batts and his staff blamed “FOP” (the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, which represents 5,000 current and retired police officers) for the scheduling rigidity. Batts and his deputy, Jerry Rodriquez, also blamed the union for forcing the department to keep as many as 90 suspended officers on administrative leave pending the disposition of their cases.
What do these 90 officers without guns or police powers do, Rodriquez was asked. “Data entry” and other desk jobs, he replied.
Whatever Happened to Foot Patrols?
Sharon Green Middleton (6th District) and chairman Branch wanted to know why foot patrols have disappeared – and why past calls by the Public Safety Committee for more patrols have gone unheeded.
Out of 3,000 officers, only about 75-80 (or 2.6%) are on foot patrol, Batts said, with a large number of them assigned to mounted patrols in the Inner Harbor.
Asked why there are not more foot patrols, Batts said that he had ordered more patrols in troubled high-homicide areas such as Fulton and North avenues.
“We’re doing exactly what you have been asking,” Batts told the committee. He noted that CADS (the Computer-Assisted Dispatch System) helps police better deploy their assets.
“The technology is far superior today,” conceded chairman Branch, “but it appears to be a challenge for the department get foot patrols on the streets.”
Councilman Branch said the streets were much safer 30 or 40 years ago when there were corner callboxes and officers knew the inhabitants of their assigned blocks intimately.
Batts said he, too, wants more patrols in the neighborhoods.
“We have to free up officer time and integrate [the department] with the community,” he said, calling on Council members for their patience as he initiates sweeping changes in the operations and culture of the BCPD based on the latest policing report.