Exodus in Police Ranks Reaches ‘Breaking Point’
by Devin Crum
A large and growing number of vacancies in the ranks of the Baltimore County police force is forcing the remaining officers to do more with less, sometimes leaving undone or unfilled other tasks and positions that backup patrols on the street. The shortage of manpower is due to recent unusually large numbers of retirements and resignations by Baltimore County police officers, spots that are not being filled due to shrinking class recruitment sizes. And the resulting personnel drain is causing a diminished police presence in communities, overtime burnout by officers and poorer service to the citizens the police are sworn to serve and protect. So far, Baltimore County police officers are still meeting the call when responding to crimes but surging numbers of calls for help could soon overwhelm the force, putting everyone in danger, according to the head of the local union representing the men and women in blue. “Coupled with a surge in violent crime as residents continue to grapple with the impacts of the pandemic, our officers – and our infrastructure – have reached a breaking point that can no longer be ignored,” said Dave Rose, president of the Baltimore County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #4 in a message posted on the union’s website. “And the communities we serve are suffering as a result.” And Rose contends that certain conditions within the Baltimore County Police Department (BCoPD) may be to blame for difficulties in retaining and attracting officers. “We are now systematically losing officers to nearby jurisdictions like Montgomery County, Howard County and Anne Arundel County, all of which can offer more substantial benefits, updated technology and equipment, and 21st century facilities,” he said.
How bad is it? During the first seven months of 2021, 103 officers have retired and another 23 have resigned, according to Joy Stewart, director of public affairs for BCoPD. That compares to 80 departures in 2020. To fill some of the vacancies, Stewart said the department expects 34 new recruits will graduate from the police academy on September 2 and 40 more are scheduled to graduate in March 2022. Police training classes usually graduate 100 recruits. Even with the expected new graduating recruits, that still leaves some 106 vacant positions currently on the rolls, she said. Community members say they are beginning to notice a diminished police presence in their neighborhoods and are growing more frustrated that people committing nuisance crimes or traffic violations are often going unpunished. Graceann Rehbein, president of the board of directors for Baltimore County’s Police Community Relations Councils (PCRCs), said it’s “pretty much a given” that there are less officers on the street and there need to be more. “But you can’t put more on the street when you don’t have them to fill [the open positions],” she said.
Rehbein said she suggested to BCoPD Chief Melissa Hyatt that more police need to be in communities where people can see them. She also noted that traffic violations — such as speeding — are a growing concern due to the lack of police available to conduct traffic stops and write tickets. “They’re not issuing tickets and citations for these idiots who drive 150 miles per hour whether it’s a residential street or The Beltway,” she said. “They’re not going to because they don’t have the staff to do it.” FOP President Rose said despite the depleted police ranks, calls are still being answered and reports are still being written. But calls for service are up across the county. “So we have less officers handling more calls for service,” he said. “They’re handling their calls, they’re writing their reports. But all that extra, self-initiated enforcement takes a back seat and the stops and the arrests become less.” Rose added that he hears from officers who have had to work long overtime hours several times in a week which could lead to burnout and present a potential danger to themselves and the public they serve.
Why are so many officers leaving BCoPD now? BCoPD spokesperson Stewart said law enforcement agencies nationwide are experiencing unprecedented challenges with recruitment and retention following a wave of anti-police sentiment that swept the country last year. She also blamed a hiring freeze instituted by the county’s department in 1992 followed by mass hiring in 1994 which is exacerbating today’s retirement numbers. “Those hired back then are approaching 30 years of service and there are several dates that, due to the way retirements are calculated, become more lucrative to retire,” she said. However, FOP’s Rose said many Baltimore County police officers are seeking greener pastures in other neighboring jurisdictions which provide members of their force with more modern technology, equipment and facilities and offer more attractive retirement and healthcare benefits than BCoPD does. He claimed that 19 Baltimore County officers have left the agency for employment in other local police departments since January 2020. Rose said police departments in surrounding jurisdictions allow their officers to retire after 20 years of service while BCoPD requires 25 years. And others require a smaller pension contribution from officers or offer a higher payout benefit than BCoPD. “What their new hires pay for healthcare and what they get for retiree healthcare is significantly less costly to the employee in those other jurisdictions,” he said.
‘Last or next to last’
Rose noted that all of the departments in the region are “fairly competitive” with one another when it comes to starting salaries for officers. “But when you start deducting the employee’s cost for pension contributions and the healthcare costs, our net pay compared to seven jurisdictions that surround us is either last or next to last,” he said. The FOP president also lamented over the subpar state of several of BCoPD’s facilities, particularly the police firing ranges, training and education facilities — or lack thereof — and Cockeysville’s Precinct 7 station house, which serves northern Baltimore County from Timonium to the state line. The Cockeysville building, built in 1969, is among the oldest in the county and is one of three that Rose called “dilapidated and in disrepair.” “We’re talking about policing in 2021 and we’re using facilities that were built in the early 1960s,” Rose said. Norman Zickuhr, director of the Cockeysville PCRC, did not disagree with Rose’s comments about the half-century-old precinct building. “Facility-wise it probably is [dilapidated],” he said. “I’m sure they could use a new facility.”
But BCoPD spokesperson Stewart said it is incorrect to imply that officers are leaving BCoPD en masse for other jurisdictions. She claimed that, while the department has lost four officers to other departments this year, it also has hired 11 officers from other departments in that same time. In an effort to stop the bleeding, Stewart said BCoPD has launched an “innovative and targeted” recruitment campaign to try to attract a pool of qualified applicants and attempt to close the vacancy gap. While Stewart acknowledged that “under-investment” in the police department infrastructure dates back many years, she said county government recently has made significant progress and investment over the last two years. “There’s been an investment of millions of dollars in updated equipment, technology and training,” she said, pointing out that nearly 100 new police vehicles were purchased last year and a recent order was placed for 70 more. The local police spokeswoman also said Chief Hyatt has replaced outdated personal protection equipment with new helmets and chest and shin protectors and spent $1.2 million on upgrades for the county’s firing range.
Age and condition
Additionally, County Executive John A. Olszewski Jr. included funds in his FY22 budget to purchase property for a new Precinct 1 (Wilkins) facility, replacing the county’s oldest station in the most disrepair. Because of the age and condition of the Precinct 1 building, it is no longer considered suitable to hold prisoners because it is too much of an escape risk. But Rose called the improvements at the firing range a “patchwork” approach and lamented that there currently are no plans to replace the Cockeysville precinct. building He said the officer vacancies are not spread evenly across the county’s 10 precincts, and in Cockeysville nine of its 111 authorized positions are currently vacant. And another 10 officers from the precinct are temporarily stationed with another unit. While other precincts may be even more adversely affected, that means Precinct 7 is currently down 17 percent of its potential staff, he said. County-wide, in addition to the 106 vacancies, Rose claimed another 10 are on military leave, 80 are on modified duty, 40 are in the academy and 15 are on suspension. According to his math, that means the department will have to hire about 2.5 times as many new officers as projected for several years consistently.
‘Get into a spiral’
Rose commended Chief Hyatt on her “full-court press” attempts in recruiting but added, “I don’t see that happening in the current climate,” he said. “My reasoning for putting this out there is to say, look, we’re in bad shape,” Rose said, though not in “critical, crisis mode.” “But if we don’t start addressing some of these issues to bring people in and keep them here, we’re going to get into a spiral that we’re not going to be able to dig out of,” he said. The situation will get worse before it gets better, added Rose. “I think we’re going to continue to see [a higher number of] retirements through the end of this year and into next year,” he said Stewart agreed saying that BCoPD expects a higher number of retirements again in July 2022. To attract recruits and retain experienced officials, Rose said the county has to put up the money to address the issue. “Without the resources needed to bring our department up to par with nearby jurisdictions, we will continue to lose qualified candidates and existing officers to other more modern and better-equipped agencies and our communities will continue to bear the brunt of understaffed and undervalued precincts,” he said. “The longer we wait, the more expensive it’s going to be,” added Rose.
TAGLINE Devin Crum is a reporter for the Country Chronicle and may be reached at email@example.com.