For seven years as an officer with Prince George's County police, Joseph Hudson felt his frustration mount like a tightening vise.
Even on the good days, he drove from crime scene to crime scene in the Clinton district, trying to cope on a chronically short-handed police force. Sometimes, he'd hear on his radio that 25 emergency calls were on hold and five officers were available to respond.
Joseph Hudson, right, left the Prince George's police department to work under Calvert Sheriff Mike Evans, left.
(Mark Gail -- The Washington Post)
A Blue Wall of Silence: Pr. George's police have shot and killed people at rates that exceed those of nearly any other large force in the nation.
False Confessions: Documents and interviews reveal that Pr. George's homicide detectives extracted false confessions from four men.
On other days, he said, he thought commanders interfered too much -- especially after the U.S. Justice Department began investigating whether police used excessive force. Instead of making Prince George's safer, Hudson, a thick-muscled man with a buzz cut and biceps as big as footballs, felt as if he were the one in handcuffs.
"Every day I'd wonder whether it was worth it," he said.
Tired of feeling outnumbered and overmanaged, he took a $13,000 pay cut in 2002 to become a sheriff's deputy in Calvert County. He was named deputy of the year for 2004.
Hudson, 34, is part of a vexing public safety issue for the county. At a time when homicides are up 60 percent from this time last year and the force needs every good officer it can muster, Prince George's police are unable to function at full strength. Budgeted for 1,420 members, the county currently has 1,356 sworn officers.
Even that figure doesn't reflect actual street strength. On any given day, officers are on personal or sick leave, testifying in court, receiving in-service training or on limited duty.
The staffing problem is chronic: It has been at least a decade since the department filled all available jobs. Starting in 1989, when the Prince George's population was about 125,000 less than it is today, then-County Executive Parris N. Glendening pledged to expand the force to 1,400 to better serve the 500-square-mile territory.
"There may have been a time, years ago, it happened for a day or two," said the current county executive's spokesman, Jim Keary. "Not any time recent."
The shortage is taking on new urgency. Homicide rates have hurtled upward -- 148 last year, up 20 from the year before. There have also been sharp increases in rapes, carjackings and robberies this year from the same period in 2004. Residents of crime-ridden apartment complexes complain that they could, in the words of one, "run a marathon" before police respond to calls.
The issue has become politically potent. Reducing crime and improving police service were core themes of County Executive Jack B. Johnson's 2002 campaign. As the 2006 election approaches, he and other county officials are being called to account.
"We do not have enough officers on our streets. This is the single biggest reason why crime is so high in Prince George's County," said Rushern L. Baker III, a former state delegate who is expected to challenge Johnson in next year's Democratic primary.
Although Prince George's officials say they have recruited aggressively, attrition has left them with a net gain of just 33 officers since 2002. An average of eight officers a month leave the department, compared with about five in Fairfax County and four in Montgomery County.
There appears to be no single reason for the drain. Some former officers said they were driven out by overbearing superiors and the strain of being stretched thin in a high-crime area. A few cited disdain for Johnson, who prosecuted officers as state's attorney from 1994 to 2002 and later ran for office vowing to reform the police department, which drew the wrath of the police union.
County officials discount stories of poor morale and departmental politics. They say that attempts to fill the ranks have been hindered by a limited pool of qualified applicants, large numbers of officers retiring at 20 years' service for their pensions, and competition from federal law enforcement agencies flush with post-Sept. 11 hiring budgets.
They also assert, with some prickliness, that the homicide increase is a short-lived phenomenon, not a trend, and that there is no correlation between staff shortages and crime rates.
"There is no culture of violence in Prince George's County," said Vernon R. Herron, director of public safety. "We're not asleep at the wheel."
The problem, however, reaches beyond filling available jobs. Even if the department reaches its authorized strength of 1,420, it will have about 1.67 officers for every 1,000 residents, far below the national average of 2.6 for metropolitan counties, according to statistics from the FBI.
"That seems like a really low ratio," said Michael D. White, deputy director of the Criminal Justice Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College for Criminal Justice in New York. "You have a crime problem but not staffing to deal with it."
Prince George's police-to-citizen ratio is similar to that of jurisdictions with significantly less crime, according to FBI data. Fairfax maintains about 1.36 officers per 1,000 people. In Montgomery, the ratio is about 1.26 officers per 1,000. The District, which exceeds Prince George's in the number or homicides and other violent crimes, has about 6.75 officers per 1,000.
"In a perfect world, we would have 2.1 police officers per 1000 [about 1,785], but we don't," Herron said.
He added that the county has tried to stimulate recruiting by hiring a marketing firm, and said that although the force is down about 65 officers, that is the department's best staff showing since 2002, when Johnson was elected. Also, in his proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, Johnson has set aside money for an additional 200 officers.
Police Chief Melvin C. High would not comment for this article. His spokeswoman, Barbara Hamm, said that the county's crime is fueled, in part, by population growth -- from 728,500 in 1990 to 850,000 today.
"The county is growing by leaps and bounds, [and] the infrastructure can't keep pace," she said.
To alleviate the pressures created by growth, the Maryland General Assembly passed a bill last week that imposes a $6,000 surcharge on builders for each house they construct, with the revenue going to improve police service. The County Council also enacted legislation in 2004 linking subdivision construction to police staffing and response times.
The measure requires the county to reach 95 percent of full strength -- 1,349 -- by December and 100 percent by the end of 2006. So far, it appears that Johnson's administration is complying, said council member Douglas J.J. Peters (D-Bowie), who introduced the bill.
A major challenge for the county has been the changing pool of available applicants for police work.
"Police departments are not used to finding people," said John Jay's White. "The idea of having to recruit aggressively is foreign."
For those who leave the department, money is often not the issue. From 2002 to 2004, 21 officers joined the lower-paying Prince George's sheriff's department.
Montgomery, where eight Prince George's officers went between 2002 and last year, has less crime and offers perks including free twice-weekly dry cleaning, but starting salaries are only slightly higher ($39,305, as opposed to $38,478 in Prince George's). Starting pay in Fairfax is $39,770.
More than a half-dozen former Prince George's officers interviewed for this article spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from their current departments. But Hudson and several others described a backdrop of discontent and said that Johnson was part of the reason they moved..
As state's attorney from 1994 through 2002, Johnson prosecuted 11 officers accused of misconduct but won no convictions.
Keary, Johnson's spokesman, said prosecution of those officers was based on the law, not on politics. "He is pro-police," Keary said.
Johnson's campaign call for police reform was bolstered by two Justice Department civil-rights investigations. The first began in April 1999 after The Washington Post reported that dozens of people had suffered serious injuries from attacks by police dogs. The second dealt with allegations that officers had used excessive force.
Since 2000, Prince George's has paid nearly $10 million in civil jury awards and settlements to people who alleged mistreatment by county police.
A result of the investigations was an agreement between Prince George's police and the Justice Department in which the county promised to closely monitor its officers and restrict use of the canine unit.
An unintended result, some officers said, has been a chilling effect on good policing.
James M. Prentice said he left the force in 2002 to join the Federal Air Marshal Service after watching colleagues caught up in what he characterized as baseless criminal and departmental investigations.
"One was acquitted, and the other was never charged," said Prentice, who has since left the Air Marshal Service for another federal agency. "After you see that happen to your friends, you say, 'I don't want that to happen to me.' "
Asked about low morale on the force, Herron said, "Like any police department, we're dealing with morale issues" but added that it is still a rewarding place to work.
"If you know someone who wants to be a police officer in Prince George's County, I challenge you to send them to us," Herron said.
Patrol officer Eric Porter, 42, seems to be just what Herron is looking for.
Frustrated by the staffing shortage, Porter left the force in May 2004 after five years to join the Prince George's sheriff's department.
But he soon grew bored with administrative work and craved the excitement of the streets. Then he saw that the police department was recruiting. He starts later this month.
Friends and co-workers, especially those who used to be on the force, have questioned his decision. He said he has been asked many times, "Are you out of your mind?"
Staff writer Ruben Castaneda contributed to this report.