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  January 10, 2017

Is the Baltimore Police Union Running the City?


The recent snubbing of the mayor and resistance against deployment changes raise questions about who's in charge of the city's largest and most expansive bureaucracy
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Is the Baltimore Police Union Running the City?STEPHEN JANIS: This is Stephen Janis reporting for The Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland.

I am standing outside City Hall where a press conference just concluded with newly-elected Mayor Catherine Pugh and Police Commissioner Kevin Davis about the future of crime-fighting in Baltimore City and the police department itself. It has been another violent year for Baltimore City, with over 300 murders. But also on the agenda was the power of the Baltimore City police union, otherwise known as the FOP. Both the Mayor and the Police Commissioner pushed back, saying they've got too much power and too much control over how police officers are deployed.

At the first press conference on policing since her swearing-in, Mayor Catherine Pugh told a story of trying to contact police union president Gene Ryan about staffing problems, and being rebuffed.

(video clip)

CATHERINE PUGH: I said the them, you know, I welcome the opportunity to have a discussion because I know that you've all been in negotiations, but certainly no negotiations have taken place.

(end video clip)

STEPHEN JANIS: In fact, the Mayor made clear the union, which represents some 2,600 employees of the city's most expensive agency, had tied her hands.

(video clip)

CATHERINE PUGH: When I looked at just, for example, the overtime that has occurred as a result of the current contract that is in place, we incur something like $1.6 million every pay period. Overtime has become a matter of fact. And so, when I look at the current schedule that was negotiated, where we have four days on, three days off, I mean, I expect that with the fire department because they actually sleep at the firehouse and we don't know when fires occur and we want to make sure. I believe that the hands(?) of delivering schedules for our police officers should be in the hands of the Police Commissioner. It should not be a negotiation in a contract.

(end video clip)

STEPHEN JANIS: Due to a previous contract negotiation with former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, current Police Commissioner Kevin Davis has little say in how and when police are deployed, which prompted The Real News so ask both the Mayor and the Commissioner a fundamental question: who is running the city's biggest and most expensive agency?

(video clip)

STEPHEN JANIS: ... like the FOP's running the department? Is that true?

KEVIN DAVIS: No, I'm running the department, Stephen.

CATHERINE PUGH: No. No, no, no, no, no, no, no.

STEPHEN JANIS: It sounds like you're saying yes.

CATHERINE PUGH: No. No. No...

STEPHEN JANIS: ... can't change the shifts and you can't change it without—

CATHERINE PUGH: They're not running the department, though.

KEVIN DAVIS: We're just talking about the schedule.

CATHERINE PUGH: That's why we're standing here.

STEPHEN JANIS: Okay.

CATHERINE PUGH: They're not running the department.

(end video clip)

STEPHEN JANIS: The query has huge implications. Baltimore spends roughly $500 million a year on direct policing costs alone. Add in pensions and post-retirement healthcare and disability, and that number gets closer to $800 million -- a massive slice of a dwindling city budget.

Meanwhile, this growing expenditure has yielded little in terms of crime reduction. In 2016, Baltimore notched over 300 homicides, making the city one of the deadliest in the nation. In fact, over the weekend, seven people were shot, and one killed. These two trends, spending more money for seemingly less public safety, was troubling for City Councilman Brandon Scott, who chairs the Public Safety Committee.

(video clip)

BRANDON SCOTT: The schedule is in the contract, so the leave groups, when people are off, their days off, is in the collectively bargained contract, which means that the commissioner, the local district commanders, do not have the ability to change people's schedules or adjust them when necessary, thus causing the strain when a lot of people are scheduled to be off and having to use overtime to pay people to work – basically, what's wrong.

(end video clip)

STEPHEN JANIS: Meanwhile, the FOP has continued to dominate the media with calls for more spending, arguing in this article that the department is understaffed. But is it true? We asked former Homicide Lieutenant Stephen Tabeling, and he said it's not about staffing, but deployment, with only 37% of city officers on patrol.

(video clip)

STEPHEN TABELING: The problem that I see is they have too many plainclothes squads. And I understand that they just formed another squad -- I don't know how many men -- and it seems that their theory is you solve crime by putting plainclothes on the street. You don't do that. You solve crimes by putting uniforms... we're supposed to be proactive, not reactive. And most of the times your uniformed men are making a lot of arrests and detectives follow stuff up. That's one of the purposes of plainclothes is to do the follow-up work and close a lot of cases. But this department has the idea that you do it with plainclothes officers, and I just don't agree with that.

(end video clip)

STEPHEN JANIS: In fact, Tabeling notes that the city has one of the largest police departments per capita in the country, coming in just shy of Washington, D.C. We reached out to FOP President Gene Ryan for comment, but have yet to hear back. Meanwhile, the mayor says she, too, is waiting for a call.

The question is, does the city's most powerful union have to respond?

(video clip)

CATHERINE PUGH: I don't know what... I haven't had a conversation, other than, "Happy New Year, have a great time, look forward to sitting down with you, looking forward to having a conversation," but just know that when we sit down my main sticking point is going to be civilians on trial boards, that's what the neighborhoods want, that's what the communities want. Looking forward to that phone call. Let's get together. Thumbs up. Let's do it. I'm waiting for it.

(end video clip)

STEPHEN JANIS: This is Stephen Janis and Taya Graham reporting for The Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland.

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