Troubles with the police team complicate reform efforts in Baltimore

Police staffing woes complicate reform effort in Baltimore

Martinez and other cadets have an outsized job before them: help transform a beleaguered police agency struggling to reinvent itself amid a national crisis of confidence in policing. But the city’s thin blue line just keeps getting thinner. The Baltimore Police Department has roughly 400 vacancies among the force’s sworn staff and its recruitment efforts can’t keep pace with those leaving their jobs. Last year, the agency hired one above attrition for the entire year. Amid the national reckoning on policing in the U.S. since George Floyd’s killing by an officer in Minneapolis, any number of police agencies have struggled to recruit and retain law enforcers. For Baltimore, a city with chronically high rates of violent crime and a dysfunctional police force laboring under a tarnished image, there’s a constant challenge in drawing enough recruits to stem the outflow, including retirements and a churn of younger officers with roughly three to seven years on the job giving up their badges.

At Baltimore’s police academy, the earnest 25-year-old from a law enforcement family said he wants to earn his stripes as a protector of neighborhoods. He was attracted by the agency’s recruitment pitches urging police hopefuls to become part of the “greatest comeback story in America.” “There’s clearly a goal to change things up here. I want to be part of that change,” said Martinez, adjusting his department-issued duty belt. While it’s hardly the first time that Baltimore’s force has been below authorized strength, the city is now facing new kinds of pressure. It has to meet hundreds of benchmarks for staffing, accountability, use-of-force policies and other matters before it can prove it’s a transformed agency and get out from under a sweeping oversight program.

Since 2017, the city has been under federal oversight after the U.S. Justice Department released a scathing report detailing longstanding patterns of racial profiling and excessive force. The so-called consent decree is similar to ones undertaken in places such as Ferguson, Missouri, and Cleveland. Some cities return to local control after a few years, others take far longer. The Oakland Police Department has been under a consent decree for nearly 20 years. A staffing plan calls for 2,785 sworn officers, but city police had 2,398 members on payroll in recent months.

Those closely monitoring the federal intervention in Baltimore are increasingly voicing doubt. The judge overseeing the process, U.S. District Judge James Bredar, said without more bodies the city’s force “will be unable to meet some of the consent decree’s most basic requirements.” Timothy Mygatt, a Justice Department lawyer, said staffing shortages are affecting the BPD’s ability to achieve compliance in critical areas. These include big shortages in the Public Integrity Bureau, which is down so many investigators that the average time to complete a misconduct probe is now eight months. But the biggest worry is with patrol’s street-level policing, where Baltimore still routinely has to draft officers to work double shifts, something the decree says must be avoided as it could lead to more unconstitutional law enforcement.

“Tired officers are in a worse position to exercise good judgment,” Mygatt said at a recent hearing. Rewriting department policy has been relatively smooth. But deploying a new model of community policing on Baltimore’s streets and gaining citizen trust — the core of the entire intervention — has barely begun. Some residents wonder if Baltimore just needs to focus on implementing the big-ticket reforms since it’s hard to overstate the deep history of distrust between citizens in large swaths of Baltimore and police.

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