The Baltimore Police Department is struggling to fill vacancies, new recruitment figures show. (Ulysses Muñoz/Baltimore Sun)

The Baltimore Police Department’s efforts to recruit hundreds of new police officers to fill vacant patrol positions in the face of persistently high levels of street violence are not going well, according to new recruitment figures obtained by the Baltimore Sun.

The department is not only failing to fill the estimated 500 vacancies, but suffered a net loss of 36 sworn officers in 2018 — hiring 184 officers but losing 220 others, data show.

Meanwhile, homicides have topped 300 in each of the past four years, making Baltimore the most murderous big city in the nation.

The net decline in officers comes despite a recognition among top-level city administration and police officials that the department’s practice of paying overtime to overworked officers to fill otherwise empty patrol cars is unsustainable, leads to additional burnout and diminishes safety.

Mayor Catherine Pugh (D), who has pointed to the vacant patrol positions as a top concern of hers, declined to comment on the latest numbers. But Greg Tucker, one of her top advisers, said “the issue is being able to process the considerable increase in the number of those applying to the cadet program” — citing increases in applications, if not hires.

Despite the decline in the ranks, Tucker said Pugh “believes the measures she has put in place are the right ones to attract not only a greater number of candidates but the right type of candidates who can be part of neighborhood solutions and reestablish trust between residents and the Baltimore Police Department.”

Sgt. Michael Mancuso, president of the police union, said the city isn’t offering competitive enough packages to attract officers, and isn’t doing enough to train the number of recruit classes it would take to have recruitment outpace attrition.

“In recent contract talks, we stressed this to the city, and they refused to recognize the mediocrity of what they were putting across the table,” Mancuso said, “not just in salaries but in regard to many working conditions that could have been improved.”

The starting salary for officers is around $52,000.

The union’s most recent contract with the city, signed in November, gave officers a $1,000 ratification bonus and annual raises of 3 percent each year through 2021, plus a $1,000 “patrol incentive” for any officer who works patrol an entire fiscal year.

The latest decline in sworn officers represents a setback from 2017, when recruitment had been a positive glimmer amid a sea of negative headlines for the department. That year, there was a marginal net growth of four sworn officers, the first increase since 2009, and Pugh cited the figure during her State of the City speech in March.

Now, police and city officials said they were working diligently to turn the tide once more, with the help of state regulators and federal overseers.

Pugh has included funding for the positions in her budget, and assigned the task of boosting recruitment and retention to a special “Innovation Team” funded by billionaire philanthropist Michael Bloomberg. The city renegotiated its contract with the police union to change officer schedules in a way they said would cut down on shortages and overtime pay. State regulators in 2017 eased restrictions on past marijuana use by police applicants, something Baltimore officials said was disqualifying large numbers of applicants. And the city’s consent decree with the Justice Department mandates a full review and restructuring of the recruitment process, after federal investigators found police districts were short-staffed and the recruitment process insufficient to reverse the trend.

Matt Jablow, a police spokesman, said the department has already begun restructuring, and recently converted much of its recruitment process from paper to digital. After the application process went online last summer, he said, the department began receiving 81 applications every week, compared with 19 before — a fourfold increase.

In addition, Jablow said, the department is getting more city residents to apply — with 599 in 2018, the most since 2010 — and more women to apply, with 577 last year, compared with 245 in 2017. It also introduced in November a new test that considers “characteristics needed for constitutional policing, including having a community orientation,” to ensure the caliber of candidates, he said.

The fact that none of that has translated into net gains in the overall number of sworn officers “can be attributed in large part to the fact that we couldn’t keep up with the increase in applications,” Jablow said.

The police department has an annual budget of nearly half a billion dollars. Its inability to properly staff its patrol bureau has long been criticized. Some critics point to too many sworn officers working in administrative positions as a major cause. A staffing study last year found the department failed to prioritize patrol positions, leaving a 26.6 percent vacancy rate, and said it should consider restructuring. And the department itself routinely relies on administrative officers to backfill patrol positions when shortages are especially high or violent crime demands an increased police presence on the streets.

The department did just that in October, when top brass reassigned 230 officers from administrative tasks to patrol. But even with that shift, there were about 500 reported patrol vacancies.

— Baltimore Sun