Baltimore police officials said during a court hearing Thursday that, for the first time in years, the department is hiring more officers than it is losing, although more work needs to be done to address staffing shortages.
Eric Melancon, the chief of staff for Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, said the department has hired 180 officers this year while 175 have left for various reasons. It is a turnaround from 2019, when the department finished the year with 31 fewer officers than it started with, leaving officials worried staffing shortages would hinder efforts to reform the department.
“This is a very positive turning of the corner for us,” Melancon said.
He added that, while the department has an additional nine officers who have been cleared to start in November, “we’re still not satisfied and we still need to work on hiring.”
Melancon’s comments came during a Thursday hearing for the federal consent degree the city entered into with the U.S. Justice Department in 2017. Officials from a monitoring team overseeing the decree also said the department plans to implement modernized electronic record-keeping systems by the fall of 2021, addressing another key consent decree issue.
Staffing levels at the department have been a point of contention for years, with hundreds of officers leaving over the several years. Department leaders and the monitoring team have expressed concern that initiatives such as the proposed Community Policing Plan would suffer if the department could not maintain steady levels of staffing.
U.S. District Court Judge James K. Bredar — who once warned that staffing was a “critical crisis area confronting the department” — said Tuesday that the department needs to leverage the moment when approaching potential hires.
“It’s an important messaging opportunity for the department,” Bredar said. “We have turned it around in terms of this hemorrhaging of staff.”
In addition, city attorney Lisa Walden said the department is working with Axon Records to implement electronic field reporting for officers by the spring, with case management making the full transition by the fall.
The Consent Decree Monitoring Team has continually said the department’s paper-based record-keeping system has made it difficult to adequately assess whether officers are operating in line with newly implemented training under the decree.
While Justice Department attorney David Cooper said the department was “very encouraged” by the new records system, he added that it is important that pressure be maintained to make sure it’s followed by all in the department.
“It’s not going to reach its potential . . . until all of the rank-and-file are consistently and reliably using the system,” Cooper said.
Bredar added that the department may need to undergo training for older, command-level staff members who may not be as versed on the technology behind the changes.
“You’ve got to make that transition palatable for . . . the higher seniority officers who are not the digital natives that some of the other officers and some of the other people in this courtroom are,” Bredar said.
And while much of the tone reflected the praise for the department’s reform efforts seen in the monitoring team’s latest report, Bredar said it’s still frustrating to see a department several years into a reform agreement that’s still unable to measure officers' conduct and compliance.
“Like many others in Baltimore, I have frustration that three-and-a-half years into this process on the ground, tangible improvements are, frankly, elusive,” he said. “I applaud the progress, particularly in the last year, but it’s not fast enough, especially for a city that (has suffered) with a dysfunctional police department.”
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