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Baltimore Police applications spike during ‘Comeback’-themed campaign, but attrition still outpacing hiring

BALTIMORE — Early results of a new Baltimore Police Department campaign recruiting men and women to “Be a Part of the Greatest Comeback Story in America” are promising: Applications soared to 476 in the month after the launch, nearly double the previous month’s number. In fact, the department has lured more applicants so far this year than in all of 2018.

It’s too early to see a surge of new officers from the media campaign, which began in July. It will take four to six months for applicants to become hires, Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said.

Yet those hires can’t come too soon. As of Oct. 1, the department had hired 128 officers and lost 143 to attrition this year — a net loss of 15 officers. And those 128 hires put the department well below a pace to meet its goal of 300 new hires a year.

Amid the high attrition rate and anemic hiring, Harrison and others express hope that the recruiting bump, technological efficiencies and more strategic use of civilians will put the department on a stronger footing to staff patrols in a city staring down a fifth year of more than 300 homicides.

“The department is seeing a large number of applications. It’s sizably larger than it has been because of our digital marketing campaign,” Harrison said.

“We’re now working to vet those applications to see how many of those people will make it through our process, but it’s very promising,” Harrison said.

The $200,000 marketing campaign was announced in July to help fill the department’s ranks, aiming to hire more women, minorities and city residents. Baltimore has just under 2,300 sworn officers. Harrison has not specified how many more are needed, saying it depends in large part on how quickly the department improves its technology and efficiency.

So far this year 3,643 people have applied, up from 3,039 total last year and more than double the number who applied in 2017.

The department in the past has struggled to quickly perform background investigations. When Harrison became commissioner in February, he decided not to immediately spend money available to have a consultant do the investigations, saying he wanted to complete a broader review of recruitment first. Police spokesman Matt Jablow said the department was able to eliminate the backlog without using the outside firm and that it has slashed the time between when applications are received and reviewed.

Candidates now are often fully vetted within three to four months as the unit has become more efficient, he said.

Leaders of the police officers union said in a report released Tuesday that the department has fewer sworn background investigators than it did at the beginning of the year. The union also said the department must hire 400 to 500 new officers, which would bring staffing levels closer to the approximately 3,000 officers on the force in 2012.

Last year, city officials attributed a jump in applications in part to a new online process, which they said widened the pool of applicants and streamlined their path.

Officials say it’s early to draw conclusions about the current campaign. But Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young said he is optimistic.

“It’s going very well. It’s showing signs of improvement,” Young said. “More people are beginning to apply. I think by the end of the year, we should be seeing some numbers that we can produce, but right now it’s very encouraging.”

Attrition has remained a problem for the past 10 years, with an average of 232 officers leaving yearly, according to department figures.

In 2015, the department lost 243 officers and hired just 91.

The same year, six city officers were charged in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray. Gray’s death put the department under greater scrutiny after the U.S. Department of Justice conducted a civil rights investigation and found that officers regularly violated the rights of residents. The investigation resulted in the city and the Justice Department in 2017 entering into a consent decree that requires the Baltimore Police Department to undergo sweeping reforms, including carrying out a comprehensive staffing plan.

Harrison said a staffing study should be completed by the end of the year. In addition to new hires, he plans to use more civilians for clerical duties and increase the use of technology to lessen paperwork so officers can concentrate on policing.

Recruitment is part of Harrison’s broader crime-fighting strategy, which includes reducing the workload for officers, especially in patrol, which has a vacancy rate of 26 percent, according to last year’s staffing study.

The union plan released Tuesday highlighted recruitment as a top concern. It called for a greater effort to assign administrative duties to civilians. The union has also called for the department to look into other incentives to draw officers from other agencies, such as a signing bonus, as well as new incentives for officers who have recently retired.

The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3 president, Sgt. Mike Mancuso, declined to comment for this article.

The increase in applicants has not affected the quality of those seeking to join the Baltimore department. Records show that about 58 percent of the applicants this year — before and after the campaign — meet the minimum hiring standards.

The city has sought to hire more women, minorities and local residents. Most of the applicants are African American and male. About a third are from Baltimore, another third are from elsewhere in Maryland and the rest from out of state. Those demographics are not substantially different from those of the months before the campaign.

City Councilman Ryan Dorsey questioned the department’s staffing strategy. He said some jobs staffed by sworn officers could easily be filled with civilians at less expense. Dorsey said many sworn officers are doing desk work because they are found to be unfit for patrol.

Although that number fluctuates, last year at this time 88 officers were listed as being on “light duty,” and 38 others were on medical leave. An additional 34 were suspended, as the force has seen a large number of its officers investigated or charged with various crimes or infractions.

“It begs the question of why they are still working for the department at all,” Dorsey said. “We don’t know the exact reason, but I’m sure there are officers working [administrative shifts] because they are a liability to put on the street,” the councilman said. “Something about their track record, they are too great a risk.”

To better monitor officers on limited and medical duty, the department has created a new Administrative Duties Division where those officers “can be actively managed to get them back to full duty status,” according to a recent presentation to City Council members. The department has been tracking 113 such officers, 19 of whom have been identified for full duty again, officials said.

Dorsey questioned whether the rise in applications would actually result in more officers for Baltimore, noting that other police agencies also are looking to hire.

A survey of 412 police departments in the United States and Canada by the Police Executive Research Forum found that 66 percent of agencies reported a drop in applications over the past five years. It attributed the declines to a diminishing number of former military personnel who have traditionally been a source of recruits, an improved job market giving potential recruits more job options, and increasingly challenging police work.

Baltimore officials say they face one more recruitment challenge: “Negative feelings about the department.”

For comparison, neighboring Baltimore County also says it is struggling to attract new hires.

“All the agencies are seeing it across the country, but we are very aggressive and looking at other avenues,” said Baltimore County Police Cpl. Shawn Vinson, a department spokesman. County police hired 101 recruits in 2017, 85 in 2018 and 42 this year for the June academy class, but the department expects to hold another academy class before the end of the year.

New Baltimore officers make $51,953, while county officers make $54,000 a year.

Baltimore County is under greater scrutiny for its hiring practices after the Justice Department sued last month, alleging that a written test for police recruits was unfairly biased against African American applicants.

Once a city officer is hired, he or she must undergo 1,400 hours of academy training. Harrison’s long-term crime plan calls for the department to move the academy to a new facility that can accommodate up to six classes of 40 to 50 recruits, or up to 300 recruits annually. The current training academy in Northwest Baltimore can accommodate only four classes a year and requires renovations.

Kenneth Thompson, who heads the federal monitoring team overseeing the Baltimore police consent decree, said he believes Baltimore’s increase in applicants is encouraging.

“They are certainly progressing. It is certainly a tough environment nationally,” Thompson said. “Here in Baltimore, they were actually exceeding their targets. They’ve done some good things. They’ve expedited the processing of applicants. They made progress along those lines.”

Ashiah Parker, head of the No Boundaries Coalition, which has long advocated for police reform in the city, said her concern lies with how the department is training those new hires.

“I hope they are training as they have been mandated,” she said. “It seems like their recruitment is working. Let’s see if they are able to hold on to them and police in a constitutional manner.”

— Baltimore Sun

Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Rector contributed to this report.

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