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Crime & Justiceby Fern Shen1:36 pmJan 5, 20170

To help understaffed city police, some want troopers to patrol I-83

Jurisdiction change sought amid surging crime and violence, shortage of beat police

Above: Baltimore Police at the scene of a 2014 fatal crash on the Jones Falls Expressway. (baltimore.cbs.local.com)

As homicides continue to pile up at a near record pace in Baltimore – and citizens and the police union complain about severe under-staffing – some community leaders are pushing a strategy they believe can help, in a small but simple way:

They want the Maryland State Police (MSP) to be given jurisdiction over the Jones Falls Expressway (JFX/I-83), so that troopers, instead of city police officers, respond to car crashes and disabled motorists on the high-speed, north-south highway that bisects the city.

“When we have an accident on 83, that’s three or four city officers who can’t be in the community, can’t respond to calls, can’t give each other back-up,” said Joyce Green, president of the Central District Police Community Relations Council.

“Even if it’s just a fender-bender, it can take them off of city streets for two hours directing traffic and dealing with it,” said Green, an Upton resident, who has joined with her counterparts to the north in raising the issue to state and city lawmakers.

Green and Bill Miller, president of the Northern District Community Council, wrote a letter sent to state legislators in August urging the change.

“With accidents occurring daily, and sometimes more than once a day, the burden on BPD has become overwhelming,” they wrote. “The patrolling of, and response to, communities on both sides of the highway are seriously impacted by these frequent events . . .We need your help to make this happen.”

So far, said a frustrated Green, they’ve gotten little response or encouragement.

“I don’t think the state legislators really listen to what city residents are telling them we need – and safety’s at the top of that list,” Green said.

Roland Park Civic League president Ian MacFarlane has also written to lawmakers in support of giving MSP responsibility for patrolling the JFX.

“We know it’s a tough issue, [police] staffing levels are not what they need to be,” said Rob Horst, a Civic league at-large representative. “But this just seemed like low-hanging fruit – a relatively easy way to free up some officers.”

Troopers already patrol Interstate 95 and I-83 north of the city, Horst said. “You can see them sitting on 83 at the city-county line.”

“In our community, as in others, you always hear that sentiment, ‘There’s never police around when you need them,’” Horst said. “We just want to help with a positive suggestion.”

Fewer Police on Neighborhood Patrol

The request comes in the midst of newly released data highlighting staffing and deployment gaps that have touched a nerve in a crime-plagued city, including 318 killings last year.

The department had 2,528 sworn officers as of Dec. 1, compared with 2,646 a year before, according to a recently released “community policing report,” mandated by the legislature in 2015.

That report also shows that, despite the Baltimore Police Department’s stated commitment to community policing, the number of officers assigned to neighborhood patrols in 2016 also dropped, by about 100 officers, compared to the previous year.

As of Dec. 1, 2016, there were 999 officers out of 1,255 in the patrol division (79.6%) assigned to “sector patrol.”

As of Nov. 1, 2015, there had been 1,102 officers out of 1,271 (87 %) assigned to sector patrol, according to last year’s report.

The data also show a decline in the number of officers who live in the city – in 2016, it was 19.5%, compared to 21.4% in 2015.

Gene Ryan, president of the Fraternal oOrder of Police Lodge 3 has disputed these numbers, saying the staffing crisis is worse than reported. In a public statement on the matter, Ryan said BPD’s staffing report shows only 860 officers are on “sector patrol” and only 700 of them are “full-duty” officers.

“The Baltimore Police Department is at “the tipping point” of being unable to protect the city and its citizens,” Ryan said in the statement circulated on social media.

(He has not yet responded to a request from The Brew to comment specifically on the proposal to have Maryland State Police assume responsibility for I-83.)

Agency Responses

Asked about the proposal to alleviate staffing issues by shfiting I-83 responsibilities to the state, Baltimore Police Department spokesman T.J. Smith had no comment. He said BPD does cover  Jones Falls Expressway speeding and crashes but did not have any staffing numbers available.

Maryland State Police spokesman Maj. Greg Shipley, meanwhile, did have a response – unfavorable. He said troopers have their hands full covering I-83 north of the city to the Pennsylvania line, part of the more than 200 miles of interstates they patrol in Baltimore County.

“Our troopers stay very busy with our current responsibilities.,” he said. “We work in support of other law enforcement agencies on a regular basis, but are not seeking additional duties.”

Highway for Commuters, Sports Fans

City police have said they are aware of the staffing issues, but attributed them in part to redeployment aimed at stemming the surge in violent crime.

Green, who has headed her local Police-Community Relations Council for 13 years, says she can attest to the decline in neighborhood police coverage.

“Normally there were 18-20 officers per shift – now it’s 10-12 for the Central District, because there’s a shortage,” she said.  “It doesn’t do anyone any good for officers to be overworked and stressed out.”

Another argument she plans to make to help the Jones Falls Expressway idea gain traction: many of those who use the highway aren’t city residents.

“They’re commuters coming in to Baltimore for jobs or for entertainment or sports events,” she said. “Why should our officers have to be responsible for them when they can’t respond to us?”

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