WASHINGTON – Maryland lost 290 police officers between 2000 and 2003, according to new Census Bureau estimates, as departments struggle to retain the officers they have and hire replacements for the ones who are leaving.
Police officials say that natural attrition, combined with Maryland’s relatively high standards for recruits and competition with federal agencies for officers, is making qualified candidates hard to come by.
At the same time, a federal program that had helped some smaller departments hire officers ended in September.
“We’re all losing personnel,” said Mount Rainier Police Chief H. Frederick Keeney, who is also president of the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association. “What the feds don’t take from us they take from the applicant pool.”
Despite the drop, most police agencies contacted said they are getting by — and crime stats back them up. According to the FBI, violent crimes in Maryland fell by about 10 percent and property crimes fell by more than 5 percent from 2000 to 2003.
But most also said they would welcome more bodies.
Shortages are being seen across the board. Maryland State Police are authorized for 1,596 troopers, but it currently is about 77 troopers shy of that level, said Elena Russo, a state police spokeswoman.
She said the department loses about nine troopers a month, mostly to retirements. A Maryland state trooper can retire after 22 years of service. In order to keep up, Russo said state police typically try to run 180 troopers a year through their academy, but not all of them finish the course.
“At this point it hasn’t been a problem,” Russo said. “We’re getting a lot more troopers on the road than in the past.”
Other departments have tried to keep up by hiring officers through a Justice Department program that paid up to one-third of the cost of a new officer’s salary for three years, up to $75,000. But funding for the program was cut for fiscal 2005, which began Oct. 1.
Gaithersburg, Cambridge and Montgomery County police received funds from the federal in fiscal 2004, money that Gaithersburg Chief Mary Ann Viverette said put four new officers on the street. But once the money dries up, she said, “there could potentially be some problems.”
“If I go asking for five officers next year, the mayor and council might say that we need to spend the money somewhere else,” she said. “Of course when you’ve got a grant in your pocket, it makes things a bit easier.”
Maryland police agencies are also hampered by the state’s stringent drug-use guidelines for police candidates, Keeney said. Police applicants in Maryland must never have used heroin, PCP or LSD, for example, and they cannot have used marijuana more than 20 times in their lives or even once in the last two years.
Some agencies have lobbied the Maryland Police Training Commission over the past several years to relax some of the drug-use standards in order to get more applicants. But the Maryland Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police would be “dead set against” such a change, said Stuart Sardeson, second vice president of the lodge.
Sardeson, a retired sergeant with the Baltimore County Police Department, said the union is not as concerned with a small decrease in the number of officers as it is with making sure that quality remains high.
“Naturally the FOP would like not to lose a body,” Sardeson said. But “we want the highest quality.”
Even when an officer has been budgeted and a qualified candidate found, however, officials say competition among departments for officers can be fierce, especially when the federal government becomes involved.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, both the federal government and the D.C. Metropolitan Police have increased their numbers, taking a lot of officers from the areas surrounding the District, Keeney said.
That hits smaller departments particularly hard because they often cannot compete with better benefits and higher salaries offered by the federal government and larger municipal and county departments, Keeney added.
-30- CNS 11-11-04