Baltimore’s police are looking for new ways to attract recruits

Baltimore police numbers have fallen amid increase in homicides, publicity about police shootings

BALTIMORE — The Baltimore Police Department, amid an increase in violent crime, is down 500 officers from its strength of six years ago, and the mayor wants to find new ways to attract recruits.

Police departments across the country have faced the same predicament of low recruitment in recent years. But rates of violent crime are soaring and recruitment has been lagging. The department now has about 2,500 sworn members, according to Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis.

“It’s way too small,” Davis said of his department, in an interview with Capital News Service. “The current mayor is working really hard to fix that. But it’s not going to get fixed quickly.”

In recent months, the department has made efforts to increase the size of the force. The police commissioner pushed for, and won, eased restrictions on recruits’ drug use. The department digitized part of the application process, and it increased its social media presence.

Bloomberg Philanthropies has funded a new Office of Innovation for Baltimore — a small group that Mayor Catherine Pugh has tasked with helping boost police recruitment. The team is studying the police department’s recruitment practices as compared to others nationwide in order to recommend reforms.

Last year was the first since 2009 that the Baltimore Police Department has experienced a net gain in officers, said Dan Hymowitz, the director of the Mayor of Baltimore’s Office of Innovation. By early November, the department had already hired 48 more officers than in all of 2016, he said.

Baltimore’s consent decree, a legal settlement between the police department and Department of Justice which demands extensive reforms, specifically requires outreach intended to increase the department’s racial and gender diversity.

Baltimore’s department is 47.5 percent white, according to police officials. The city population is 31.4 percent white.

Applicants who live in the city were up in 2017, as were African-American and Asian applicants.

There were about 50 percent more African-American and Asian applicants by early December than at the same time last year, according to Sgt. Regina Richardson of the recruitment unit. Applications from Baltimore residents were up 67 percent as of December.

“The added positive news beyond the overall increase in hiring has been an increase in applications from minorities, from Baltimore city residents and for women,” Hymowitz said, “and those are all sort of areas where [the department] is looking to increase its numbers.”

A small, busy recruitment team

The Baltimore Police Department’s recruitment unit sits in the human resources office in headquarters downtown, overlooking the Port Discovery children’s museum, just a few blocks away from the Inner Harbor.

The team is small — just four members. It had about 10 people a decade ago, but with shortages of officers, many of them were sent out to patrol positions.

Richardson, who rejoined the unit in January after a promotion, said she feels pressure to find new recruits to support the officers who feel overworked.

“I want to encourage people to come on board so that they’ll like this job like I like it,” she said.

Applicants must take the civil service test — a 100-question multiple-choice exam offered at least once a day on weekdays and one Saturday a month.

Those who pass go on to a physical agility test and a background investigation, which includes what the unit calls the “three p’s:” a polygraph test, a psychological exam and a physical.

Hymowitz’s team analyzed data to determine where in the long process applicants fall out. The team is working to make the process fairer and more efficient by digitizing certain steps.

With a shortage of employees and equipment, the recruitment unit has become accustomed to making use of scarce resources. Support from the mayor’s Office of Innovation, which is particularly interested in creating new methods of outreach, has been helpful, Richardson said. The recruitment unit recently found an officer on medical leave from patrol to run its social media pages.

“We do the best we can with what we have,” Richardson said.

But beyond recruitment, she said, the department needs to work on keeping the officers it has.

“What we really need on the backend of this is a retention unit,” she said. “We need somebody to be able to talk to people when they want to leave.”

Intricacies of qualifying

Policing in Maryland isn’t a position that just anyone can qualify for. Baltimore’s department hired only 5 to 7 percent of applicants in 2017, Richardson said.

“It’s not a career you can wake up one morning and then decide you want to be a police officer or correctional officer and go apply, because you will have had to live your life to that point in a manner that would allow you to meet the qualifications,” said Gary McLhinney, the director of professional standards at the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services and a former Baltimore police officer and police chief for the Maryland Transportation Authority.

“It’s a career that you have to really study what’s needed in terms of your moral character and your background that will allow you to be a successful candidate,” McLhinney said.

Marijuana use has affected the chances of many applicants.

A state regulation previously limited applicants to 20 lifetime uses of marijuana, or five after the age of 21. That was in addition to requiring abstinence from the drug in the three years before the application.

The marijuana regulations disqualified 39 percent of all applicants in the first five months of 2017, according to a September report published by the Abell Foundation, which reviewed the regulation.

In October 2016, the Baltimore police commissioner, who is a member of the state’s Police Training and Standards Commission, one of the two commissions that controls the code of regulations, successfully argued that the limitations on number of uses be eliminated, citing them as major disqualifiers for his applicants.

The change took effect in June. Now, the only restriction on marijuana usage is that the applicant may not have used the drug for the previous three years.

When the regulation was revised, the recruitment unit called about 200 applicants from the past three years who had been disqualified because of the limitation on usage. Few came back, and of those who did, not all passed the first stage, Richardson said.

“We thought we were going to have an influx of applicants,” Richardson said. “We never took into consideration that...if they were somebody who was smoking a lot of marijuana then they were probably doing another drug too, and that other drug that they were probably doing would be something that would make them not be able to move forward.”

Maryland is one of seven states that has state restrictions on marijuana use for incoming police officers, according to the Abell Foundation report.

A tough sell

Attracting people to apply in the first place is another challenge, especially as incidents of police brutality have made headlines in recent years.

The Baltimore Police Department’s attrition has been relatively steady over the past several years, analysts say. It’s the number of applicants and hires that were not keeping up.

“In some segments of the community it’s not a profession that people respect anymore, and so I think that that’s creating challenges,” McLhinney said. “Also, when the unemployment rate is down, people have options, and taking the oath and wearing the badge and a gun is not for everybody.”

Moriah Willow, a social science research analyst for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission who has studied the underrepresentation of black and Hispanic officers, also cites the culture of policing as being alienating to many people of color, women and LGBT individuals.

In Baltimore, for example, women only make up about 16 percent of sworn members, according to police.

“There's an entrenched culture among police officers and male-dominated occupations to make it a hostile work environment [for those] who don't fit the mode," Willow said.

Some though, anticipate a culture of camaraderie in policing.

On the second Friday in December, six people went to police headquarters and took the civil service test. One who passed it was Jose Pena-Cadena, 27, who was driving back to his home in New Jersey that day.

Pena-Cadena served in the Marines for four years, then left to take advantage of the education benefits. He later served in the National Guard, but missed his life in the military.

“I chose to become a police officer so I can have a different experience, and instead of serving the country I’ll serve the community,” he said.

Pena-Cadena will complete his criminal justice degree in May and is hoping to be accepted into a police academy by the time he finishes. He’s willing to move anywhere that accepts him, and Baltimore is the second place he applied after New Jersey.

He expects the culture of policing to be similar to what he experienced in the Marines.

“It feels like family,” Pena-Cadena said. “Everyone wants to take care of you, and you take care of others. Everybody looks out for each other.”

Fixing the U.S. recruitment dilemma in the long-run will require law enforcement to build trust in communities, said Col. William Pallozzi, the Maryland State Police superintendent, who chairs the Police Training and Standards Commission.

By demonstrating genuine respect while performing their job, officers can develop relationships with those they serve.

“We are human and we do make mistakes, but we’re not bad people,” Pallozzi said. “Law enforcement can be a very rewarding career.”