How Baltimore can reform its way out of a crime wave

Baltimore is experiencing the worst wave of violent crime of any city in the United States. One day last month, in only 24 hours, six people were murdered. It’s as if mortal dice are rolled every day across the city’s streets. Stray bullets have injured a girl as young as 3 and a woman as old as 90. The homicide rate has gone up by almost 70 percent since 2014.

A city facing such shootings would ordinarily put more cops on the streets. But in Baltimore, it is both practically and politically impossible to meaningfully increase police presence. The police department is already understaffed. Over the past 15 years, the city has steadily cut the number of police positions in the budget. Even with fewer overall positions, the department has struggled to meet hiring quotas; on any given day, the department can field between 80 and 85 percent of its authorized force.

Meanwhile, growing violence has increased demand for policing, and the only way to generate more police hours with fewer officers is to have officers work more. Since 2013, overtime costs have roughly doubled. Soaring overtime looks bad for the department — especially after the FBI indicted seven Baltimore Police Department officers on suspicion of, among other things, brazen overtime fraud. There are officers taking advantage of the situation, but many others are simply overworked. A case in point: After the day six people were killed, Mayor Catherine Pugh (D) and Police Commissioner Kevin Davis extended officer shifts from 10 hours to 12 hours for a week. That was a prudent move that nevertheless aggravated overtime costs and sapped morale. To reduce overtime while meeting the demand for policing services, the police department must expand its force.

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